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July 3, 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.

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.

Obama promotes new overtime rules in La Crosse

President Obama at UW in 2010

President Obama at UW in 2010

President Barack Obama compared the economies of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the growing field of Republican presidential candidates to a popular movie, during a stop in La Crosse on Thursday. The president was at UW La Crosse to highlight a plan from his administration that would make more salaried workers eligible for overtime pay.

Obama, who was greeted at the airport by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, made a pointed reference to the state’s economic performance, comparing it unfavorably to that of Minnesota. “They asked the top two percent to pay a little bit more,” Obama said. “They invested in things that help everybody succeed, like all-day kindergarten and financial aid for college students. They took action to raise their minimum wage, they passed an equal pay law. They protected workers’ rights, they expanded Medicaid to cover more people.”

Walker took to the internet for some messaging prior to president’s arrival. “Our fortunes have improved in spite of – not because of – the president’s big government policies,” he said on the Real Clear Politics web site. Walker also tweeted “I hope @BarackObama will listen.”

Obama’s La Crosse trip coincided with reports that Walker would finally make his presidential ambitions final later this month. Obama commented on the burgeoning field of GOP presidential aspirants. “We’ve got some healthy competition in the Democratic party, but I’ve lost count of how many Republicans are running for this job. They’ll have enough for an actual ‘Hunger Games,'” he said, adding that the Republicans are “an interesting bunch.”

Obama said a new policy from the Labor Department would benefit salaried employees, some of whom he claimed are being taken advantage of. “In extreme cases its possible for workers to actually earn less than the minimum wage,” he said.

Bernie Sanders draws big crowd at Madison rally

berniemadisonU.S. Senator Bernie Sanders had an appreciative audience in Madison Wednesday night, as the Democratic presidential candidate barnstormed at the Alliant Energy Center. Sanders touched on a variety of domestic policy issues, but focused on what he refered to as a “grotesque” level of economic inequality. He spoke for an hour before a near capacity crowd at the arena, which seats about 10,000. The Vermont liberal said it was the biggest crowd of any candidate rally thus far in the presidential election cycle.

Sanders, who is challenging Hillary Clinton for their party’s nomination, called for “a political revolution,” and said that income inequality represents the great moral, economic and political issue of our time.

“The time has come, when people in Wisconsin, Vermont and all over this country, create a political movement which says to the billionaire class ‘you can’t have it all,'” Sanders said. “What we are saying to the Koch brothers, Governor Walker and all of those people, is that this great country and our government, belong to all of the people, and not just a handful of very wealthy people.”

Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has served in the Senate as an Independent since 2007. Prior to that, he held Vermont’s single seat in the House of Representatives since 1991. Sanders called for the breakup of Wall Street’s largest financial institutions and for free tuition at all public colleges and universities in the U.S., pledged not to nominate any U.S. Supreme Court justices who are not committed to overturning the Citizens United decision, and to pursue reform of policing policies.

“Our job is to make sure that young African-Americans can walk down the street, without being abused or worse,” Sanders said.

Sanders, who described the current federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 as “a starvation wage,” returned to the issue of economic inequality as he wrapped up his remarks, and he called on his supporters in engage with Republicans they know. “Ask your Republican friends at work if they really think it makes sense to vote for people who are going to send their jobs abroad, vote for people who will not raise the minimum wage, vote for people who are going to take health care away from their own children.”

While conceded that his opponents will be much better financed, Sanders insisted that “if we develop the grass-roots national movement that I know we can, at the end of the day they may have the money, but we have the people. And when the people stand together, we can win.”

DPI estimates half of school districts to get less aid next year

dpilogoEstimates from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction indicate more than half of Wisconsin school districts will get less general state aid in the coming school year, but Republican legislative leaders called those numbers into question. DPI released projections on Tuesday, showing that 234 of the state’s 424 public school districts are projected to receive less aid in the 2015-16 school year. The DPI numbers also show 188 districts are expected to receive more.

State Representative Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains), the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Education Committee, said parents won’t be happy. “Now that they’ve realized that these Republican legislators are putting the governor’s presidential ambitions ahead of their children, they are mad, and there’s going to be a price to pay down the road for this,” Pope said. “I know we have said this before, but we’re at the point where we just can’t cut any more.”

Joint Finance Committee co-chairs, Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Representative John Nygren (R-Marinette), said the numbers released by DPI are “misleading,” and the state budget plan “contains a significant increase” in school funding.