Open records attack sparked outrage

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel gets an A-plus for his quick and sharp criticism of a dramatic eleventh hour move by his fellow Republicans in the Legislature to gut Wisconsin’s open records law.

At issue was language of an amendment to the state budget bill that would have rendered as “secret” virtually all records and communications made by public officials at both the state and local levels. The language was added to the budget bill in the final hours of committee deliberations on a partisan vote. All 12 Republican committee members voted for the provision.

Schimel also is a Republican, but he didn’t hesitate at all to denounce the ploy.

“Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy, and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction,” he said.

Two days after the vote, four Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker said the issue would be removed from the state budget to allow a legislative study of the matter. It remains unclear who was the author. In one way or another, GOP legislators said they didn’t know how the measure originated or who was responsible for it.

Democrats, of course, criticized the maneuver of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. But the move also triggered sharp criticism from conservative groups that usually like Republican efforts in the state Capitol.

“Transparency in government is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is a good government issue,” said Brett Healy, president of the conservative MacIver Institute.

Republican leaders said they were committed to open and accountable government. The goals of the open records law changes were to protect constituents’ privacy and encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff, they said.

-Matt Pommer is the dean of Capitol correspondents in Madison. His column is published with permission from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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