July 4, 2015

Walker wants ‘changes’ to open records proposal in Wisconsin budget

Governor Scott Walker

Governor Scott Walker

Governor Scott Walker’s office said Friday that he plans to work with legislative leaders to “make changes” to a controversial set of proposals aimed at Wisconsin’s open records law, before the full budget bill makes its way to his desk.

Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Thursday added a series of provisions to the state budget dealing with Wisconsin’s open records law. If approved by the Legislature, they would severely restrict public access to most records kept by elected officials at the state and local levels. Critics argue the measure would likely prevent the public from finding out who had input on legislation taken up at the Capitol and would deal a serious blow to open government in the state.

Walker’s office on Friday had initially only said the governor would review the full budget when it reaches his desk. However, in an updated statement later in the day, Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said “Prior to the budget going to the full Legislature for action, Governor Walker plans to work with legislative leaders to make changes to the provisions included in the current proposal related to the state’s open records law. ”

Patrick did not indicate what specific changes Walker wants lawmakers to consider.

The measure sparked a firestorm of criticism on Friday, with Democrats and watchdog groups on both sides of the political aisle blasting the restrictions it would place on public access to records.

Republicans have not said who asked for the changes, only attributing them to “multiple requests.” WRN and several other media outlets have filed open records requests seeking information about the origins of the proposal.

The language added by Joint Finance does mirror some of the arguments made by Governor Walker’s administration in responding to open records requests earlier this year. Those requests, which were seeking information about proposed changes to the “Wisconsin Idea” that were initially included in the state budget, have resulted in lawsuits from The Progressive magazine and Center for Media and Democracy.

The state Assembly is expected to open debate on the budget bill sometime next week.

Wisconsin Attorney General critical of open records change

Attorney General Brad Schimel

Attorney General Brad Schimel

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel is speaking out against proposed changes to the state’s open records law, which were added to the state budget by Republican lawmakers late Thursday evening.

The provision would shield most communications and records held by elected officials from the state’s open records law. It includes documents such as drafting files on state legislation, a common source used by journalists and watchdog groups to see who had input in creating bills passed by lawmakers. Republicans have so far refused to say who asked for the changes to be added to the budget.

In a statement released this morning, Schimel said “transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the Budget Bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction.”

Schimel has recently made open government issues a focus of his office, launching an “Office of Open Government” in June that’s designed to help the public more easily access government records.

Joint Finance Committee wraps up work on Wisconsin budget

Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

A delayed state budget bill is now on its way to the full Legislature, after the Joint Finance Committee wrapped up its work on the roughly $70 billion package early Friday morning. After a stalemate that stretched for more than a month, the budget writing panel took its final votes on transportation funding, taxes, and a sweeping motion that included everything from teacher licensing requirements to serious limitations on public access to legislative records.

Majority Republicans signed off earlier in the day Thursday on a transportation package that greatly reduced the $1.3 billion in bonding included in the budget proposed by Governor Scott Walker. The changes reduced bonding to $500 million, while setting aside another $350 million for requests by the Department of Transportation that would need approval from the JFC.

Lawmakers also backed a tax package that includes increasing the standard deduction for married tax filers, federalizes the alternative minimum tax, and phases out the ability of the troubled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to issue loans.

The marathon executive session wrapped up with a 24 page omnibus motion, which contained a wide range of sometimes controversial proposals. Known as “Motion 999,” it has long been a dumping group for special interest proposals inserted into the budget at the end of the process.

The motion included multiple measures aimed at items previously added to the budget, including the removal of controversial changes to teacher licensing requirements and clarifying language that would allow home schooled students to participate in public school sports and extracurricular activities.

Also included were a wide range of proposals that critics argued could limit the ability of the public to access government records. Those changes included applying open-records balancing tests to records from investigations into officer-involved shootings and making it easier to remove some offenses from the state’s online court records database. What drew the heaviest criticism though was a sweeping proposal to limit what information lawmakers have to make available to the public.

The proposal would allow public officials to keep many of their communications surrounding the drafting of legislation, including notes on research and input into the bill, exempt from the state’s open records law. State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) called the proposal against “the very spirit of Wisconsin,” and argued the only people who want changes like this are those who have something to hide.

While the committee had finished its voting by Thursday evening, adjournment was delayed for several hours as Republicans worked behind the scenes on a possible attempt to insert language in the budget dealing with the state’s prevailing wage law. Some Senate Republicans have indicated a repeal of the law is needed for them to support the budget, even though leadership has so far indicated they plan to take up the issue as separate legislation. After more than two hours of closed door meetings, the committee returned to the room without taking action on the issue, with a final vote on the budget bill coming just after midnight on Friday morning.

While the JFC has finished its work on the budget, the process of getting it through the Legislature still faces a difficult road. The state Assembly was tentatively expected to open debate on the bill next Tuesday or Wednesday, but it remains unclear when the Senate could vote. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has so far indicated he does not yet have the votes to pass the budget in its current form.

Republicans dropping changes to Wisconsin teaching licenses

File photo

File photo

Republican lawmakers on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Thursday backed away from controversial changes to Wisconsin teacher certification rules.

The measure, added to the budget in May, would have allowed anyone with a bachelor’s degree to be licensed to teach math, social studies, science, or English in Wisconsin schools. Anyone with relevant experience, but not necessarily a degree, could teach other subjects.

A provision included in the final motion before the JFC, set to be considered Thursday evening, would remove the language from the budget.

Backers of the proposal claimed it was intended to make it easier for rural school districts to fill vacant positions, although education officials argued it would give Wisconsin the most relaxed licensing standards for teachers in the nation. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers called it “breathtaking in its stupidity” and urged lawmakers to remove it from the budget.

Governor signs bill restricting GPS tracking

Sen. Jerry Petrowski (WRN photo)

Sen. Jerry Petrowski (WRN photo)

Using a GPS device to track someone’s whereabouts or their vehicle without consent would be against the law, under legislation signed into law by Governor Scott Walker this week. The legislation from state Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) and Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee) is intended to provide more protections for victims from stalking and harassment.

Petrowski says the increasing ease of access to tracking technology prompted action to protect and empower victims of stalking so that they can end this invasion of their privacy. “This just puts some precautionary language in there to protect people, because it could be for stalking, it could be for a variety of things, and to make it punishable if you are putting a GPS device on somebody’s car without their knowledge.”

There are several exceptions for law enforcement and for parents keeping track of their minor children, as well as for businesses to keep track of vehicles they own that are used by employees. Police can still get a court order and businesses can install GPS devices on their own fleet of vehicles.

Petrowski says the law had to catch up with technology to help protect people’s privacy. “I think because technology has just grown through the years, that this is really something that was needed to mainly protect the privacy of people that have a car.”

The GPS law covers all devices used to track people without their knowledge, including cell phones.