— From The Journal Times of Racine
Victory has a thousand fathers, the saying goes, but defeat is an orphan.
In the wake of state Republicans’ holiday-weekend-eve attempt to dramatically weaken the state’s open-records law, the bipartisan backlash toward the move, and the subsequent retreat, no one in GOP leadership seemed especially eager to say “It was my idea.”
Asked by The Capital Times whether Gov. Scott Walker’s office was involved in the changes, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said: “Sure. Yeah.”
Fitzgerald said lawmakers talked to the governor’s office along the way about open records issues and the number of open records requests Walker’s office receives.
“The Assembly obviously was involved as well,” Fitzgerald said.
When asked on July 4 if he knew the measure was included in Motion No. 999 before it passed, Walker avoided giving a yes or no answer while acknowledging that he was aware of the tide of public opinion opposed to it.
A spokeswoman for Walker said on July 8 that legislative leaders notified the governor’s office they were interested in making changes to the state’s open records laws.
Then on Friday, Walker pointed the finger at Republican lawmakers directly while speaking on a WTMJ talk-radio program: “I think it was a mistake to even think about it in the budget, even though it didn’t come from us.” Walker’s office earlier in the week acknowledged it helped draft the changes.
In the immediate wake of the reversal, there was some social-media chatter that the whole thing was merely a straw man to boost Walker’s stature ahead of his long-anticipated presidential candidacy announcement, which was made Monday. But of course, to have a straw man, you have to have everybody involved in unison. The protracted debate among Republicans — who control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office — before Walker signed the budget on Sunday makes it clear that was not the case.
When your idea has brought together the conservative John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, legislative Democrats, the Society for Professional Journalists and legislators from your own party in opposition to it, you have truly come up with a bad idea.
As we have said and will continue to say as many times as necessary, government records do not belong to those presently holding office in the government. Those in office were put there through the democratic process by the people. The records are the people’s property and the people’s business.
We are willing to make an exception for the staff member commissioned by the legislator to research a topic and present a report. The staffer serves at the pleasure of the legislator; someone in opposition to the legislator’s move should direct his or her fire at the legislator, not the staffer.
But we completely disagree with Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who on July 7 told the Wisconsin State Journal: “In my view, there should be some privacy for constituents to contact my office.”
Chairman Nygren, that is exactly the kind of information the open records law is there to protect.
When a letter or an email seeks to influence a legislator on a piece of legislation or government action, that is government business and therefore the people’s business.
“A constituent” could be the little old lady who lives next to the state highway. He or she could also be a powerful business person or the president of a union local. All of the people have a right to know who has Senator X’s attention on a particular matter.
Open records laws best serve those on the outside looking in. We give credit to the MacIver Institute for recognizing that while our state government leans conservative today, it will not always be that way. Open records laws have no regard for who is presently in power; they recognize that those in the minority have as much right to know who influenced whom as those in the majority.
It seems fitting that opposition to restrictions on open records rose up right before Independence Day. Thanks to outcry from those of various political stripes, government records remain the people’s business.
Vigilance will be required to keep it that way: Lawmakers now plan to form a Legislative Council committee to study possible changes to the open records law, the State Journal reported Friday.