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Senate wipes open records rollback from budget

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to erase a dramatic rollback of the state’s open records law that Gov. Scott Walker’s office helped add to the state budget.

The Legislature’s finance committee slipped language into the budget late Thursday night that would have shielded from the law nearly everything state and local government officials create, including drafts of legislation and staff communications. The move outraged lawmakers from both parties and open government advocates.

Looking to defuse potential controversies as he prepares to announce a 2016 presidential run on Monday, the Republican governor told reporters on Saturday he planned to discuss the matter with legislative leaders after the weekend. Later that afternoon he issued a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, promising the language would come out of the budget.

He didn’t tell reporters whether his office had any hand in drafting the changes to the law. Fitzgerald told reporters Tuesday, however, that Walker’s office did participate.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an emailed statement that legislative leaders told the governor’s office they wanted to make changes in the open records law and Walker’s staff provided input. She said Walker intended to “encourage a deliberative process” to develop policy and legislation. She said that would allow for robust debate.

“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,” Patrick wrote.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said he was pleased Walker acknowledged his role in crafting the language.

“But whatever the intent, clearly these changes would have been a huge blow to open and accountable government,” Lueders said.

Senate Republicans introduced an amendment Tuesday to erase the open records changes, as well as additional language the finance committee added to the budget calling for deleting nonviolent criminal cases involving people under age 25 from the state’s popular online court website if the charges are dismissed without a trial.

The amendment passed 33-0. It now goes to the Assembly as part of the overall budget package, which that chamber was expected to take up Wednesday.

Minority Democrats still criticized Republicans. Sen. Jon Erpenbach of Middleton accused Republicans of ramming the changes through with no public input.

“I’m glad this is coming out (of the budget), but you’re not the hero of open government today,” Erpenbach said. “The audacity for you to close government like that is ridiculous. If you want to change the laws, do it properly.”

Fitzgerald pointed out that Erpenbach refused to fully comply with a records request from the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, filed in 2011 seeking emails from people who contacted him during the bitter debate over Walker’s public union restrictions.

Erpenbach turned over the messages but redacted the senders’ names and addresses, saying he was protecting them from reprisals. The institute sued, and a state appeals court eventually forced Erpenbach to release the information.

Fitzgerald said the budget language was meant to protect constituents, just as Erpenbach wanted, making his arguments difficult to swallow.

“He’s been the tip of the spear on this issue,” he said. “That’s my point. This discussion should be happening in Wisconsin. I’m not saying we did this the right way … (but) I think this is going to be an issue as we move forward in the future. It’s about privacy.”

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