The Wisconsin state Senate voted Tuesday to ax controversial budget language that would have gutted the state’s open records law. The action came after the dramatic changes ran into a buzz saw of opposition from both ends of the political spectrum in the state.
Majority Leader, Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), said “it would be difficult to revisit the issue in the environment we’re in right now” – but that this isn’t the end of it. “It’s about technology, it’s about changes, it’s privacy, and as long as those issues remain, it’s really hard for me to think that we’re never going to revisit anything related to open records,” Fitzgerald said.
The current political environment includes Governor Scott Walker’s scheduled presidential announcement next week. “Somebody in this building has something to hide,” said Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton.)
The vote to remove the language – which was slipped into the budget late last Thursday night by Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee – was unanimous, and came shortly after a spokeswoman for Governor Scott Walker confirmed that his office was involved in drafting the changes which would have drastically reduced public and media access to the actions of state and local government in Wisconsin.
Fitzgerald also told Madison media outlets that he was at the table as the changes were discussed. Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) said that didn’t surprise him. “You have to understand how Joint Finance works,” Hansen said. “It comes from the leadership of the Assembly and Senate, and with the governor.”
“The audacity, for you to close government down like that, is ridiculous,” said Erpenbach. “Mind boggling.” State Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said the media deserved thanks. “It it wasn’t for them, you would not be doing the right thing right now,” Taylor said. “You’re only doing it because you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar.”
Hansen said he has concerns that the open records laws might still be weakened, even with the language pulled from the state budget. “Because Representative Nygren and Speaker Vos are saying that they were doing the right thing,” Hansen said. “It does seem like they’re leaving the door open. I would hope they would close it for good.”
Bill Lueders with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council said he’s “very concerned” about a process that could open up the law to changes, and doesn’t think evidence suggests changes are warranted. “I don’t think the case has been made that there’s a need for it,” Leuders said.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate passed, on a 17-16 vote, budget language to repeal Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for all local government projects. The provision drafted by Senator Frank Lasee (R-De Pere) would also streamline the system for state construction projects, adopting prevailing wages set by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and eliminate the existing system where those wages are calculated by the state Department of Workforce Development.