The people of Wisconsin did themselves proud on a weekend that celebrates freedom and democratic (small “d”) values.
They turned aside a Republican attempt to cloak the state’s government in secrecy.
The reaction to a legislative attempt to strip away open government, by way of a provision added to a budget bill, was so immediate and so strong, that politicians raced to claim they had nothing to do with it.
Republicans Sen. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls and Rep. Dean Knudson of Hudson were among the 12 lawmakers on the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee who voted for limiting public access to records.
It was, George Stanley wrote in an unusually strident “editor’s note” in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “an act of blatant cynicism.”
They tried to rewrite state law so the public could no longer see their communications while writing legislation. They tried to exempt from public view a host of records created by the governor’s administration, state agencies and local governments, and put new limits on public access to information about dismissed criminal charges. They tried to grant themselves broad new special legal privileges that would allow them to refrain from releasing records when they were sued, and to bar current and former staff members from disclosing information.
They tried to wall off Wisconsin records behind a cloak of legal privilege and operational secrecy beyond what any other state in America allows.
They did this all without warning, after the last workday before a long holiday weekend — a classic ploy for politicians unable to achieve their goals, as our nation’s founders intended, through full disclosure and open debate.
Their party controls every branch of state government: Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, the Senate and Assembly, and the conservative justices the GOP backs on the state Supreme Court. Given that authority by the voters, they have been able to reshape state law in myriad ways. They passed Act 10, right to work, tuition freezes, tax cuts, concealed carry, voter ID. They replaced a liberal chief justice with a conservative one. They changed the Commerce Department into the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. They redrew the lines of legislative districts to virtually ensure they will stay in power for years to come.
Our open records laws did not hinder them.
Still, it wasn’t enough. They wanted to strike future deals in private, where no one could stop them or hold them accountable.
They calculated that we would all be too busy this weekend visiting family and friends, enjoying cookouts and fireworks, to be paying any attention.
That was their mistake.
By the afternoon of Independence Day, Gov. Scott Walker was vowing the restrictions would be removed from the bill.