At the end of last week, in the dark of the night on the eve of a holiday weekend, Wisconsin Republican legislators introduced an omnibus amendment to the state budget which was so full of godawfulness that it boggled the mind.
The part of the amendment that received the most attention and the most backlash from all corners was a provision that would have gutted open record laws. In the face of such fury, Scott Walker boldly crumbled and said that he wanted this provision removed or greatly changed.
Many Republican legislators echoed Walker's statement, even though they had originally voted for it.
What was also very peculiar about this provision is that none of the Republicans could recall who introduced it. Even the drafting notes didn't reveal who (or what) was behind this really bad idea. Of course, this mum's the word approach only showed why open record laws are so necessary.
On Tuesday, the state senate voted unanimously to remove this provision. However, in the process of doing so, it was revealed by Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald that he and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos worked with Walker's office in the creation of this provision:
Gov. Scott Walker’s office was involved in drafting dramatic changes to the state’s open records law that would have made it harder for the public to monitor how its government works, a spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.
Spokeswoman Laurel Patrick’s statement came after numerous inquiries from the State Journal in recent days and after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Tuesday that Walker’s office collaborated with Assembly and Senate leaders to draft the changes.
Minutes after Patrick’s statement, the Senate voted 32-0 to remove the open records changes from the 2015-17 budget.
“Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation,” Patrick said. “This allows for robust debate with state agencies and public employees over the merit of policies and proposed initiatives as they are being formed, while ensuring materials related to final proposals, as well as information related to external stakeholders seeking to influence public policy, would remain fully transparent.”↓ Story continues below ↓
Patrick’s statement said Walker’s office provided input after legislative leaders initiated the discussions.
“Our focus remains on ensuring open and accountable government, and we encourage public debate and discussion of any potential future changes to the state’s open records law,” she said.
In other words, Walker was trying to portray himself as a squeaky clean champion of government transparency when in reality he was a squeaking weasel who had actually been behind the move to cover up his dirty laundry.
But wait! There's more. There's always more.
Even though the provision had been removed from the budget, Walker has already been acting like it was the law of the land, withholding information from reporters, advocacy groups and citizens who had made open records requests of his office:
While Walker says he's opposing the change in records policy, he isn't altering his claim that he can withhold documents that reflect internal deliberations.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick argued existing law allows the governor to keep such records from the public.
"The governor's office always has and continues to operate under the current law and regularly releases documents that could fall within the proposed 'deliberative materials' exemption," she said Monday in an emailed statement to the Journal Sentinel. "The materials withheld are protected by current law, and we will continue to fulfill open records requests pursuant to current law, as we have always done."
But observers have said Walker's legal claims aren't in keeping with the state's records law.
"The state's open records law creates an extremely strong presumption that documents generated by government officials are subject to disclosure," Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, wrote in a blog post for the Journal Sentinel.
"The notion that they can be withheld because it might be awkward to expose the government's deliberative processes or internal discussions is not, as I say, a ridiculous idea, but it is one that our state Legislature, in enacting the law, has rejected."
What records Walker is withholding — and how many — remains unclear. His administration has released hundreds of pages of records in response to his office's consideration of changes to the Wisconsin Idea but has said it is holding back some others.
It should also be noted that while Walker and his apologists are trying to say that since they removed the provision, it is a matter of no harm, no foul - even though Walker is refusing to follow the law anyway - they have already said that they want to refer these changes to a legislative committee to look at them again when the environment is more friendly.
In other words, they are going to wait until the people move on to the next outrage - and there is more than enough to be outraged about - so that they can go back and implement these changes anyway.
On a final note, besides the obvious win of the setback to Walker's attempt to destroy the open records laws, there is another bonus to this whole debacle.
Walker quickly backtracked off of the changes because he wants the budget to be done by Monday, when he is to formally announce his presidential campaign. He also didn't want any hoopla that would distract from his very carefully scripted and choreographed plans for said announcement.
What he ended up giving people cause to wonder just what else he is trying to hide and giving people more reason to investigate him even more closely.