By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday that lawmakers will not be pursuing changes to the state’s open records law this session, despite a request from his office to have a bill drafted setting different standards for the Legislature.
The request to treat the Legislature differently than all other state and local governmental bodies came three weeks after Vos and other lawmakers retreated from their proposal in July to gut the open records law after a loud bipartisan outcry.
Vos said that the bill drafting request submitted July 23 was done so there could be a starting point for discussions by a yet-to-be-formed study committee. The bill was to include his original ideas for changing the law, which morphed over time, he said.
What Republicans on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee approved on July 2 would have changed the open records law to keep secret nearly everything state and local government officials create, including drafts of legislation and staff communications.
But following a backlash from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as media outlets and open government advocates, lawmakers relented and removed the changes before the budget was approved and signed into law.
Vos joined with other legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker, now a GOP presidential candidate, in saying they wanted to convene a committee to study possible changes to the open records law and report back.
But that committee has not yet been formed or met. And just three weeks after the original open records changes were proposed and pulled back, Vos requested that a bill be drafted allowing the Legislature to set its own record retention policy by rule.
The request was first made public by the liberal Center on Media and Democracy in Madison which released emails it obtained under the open records law from Vos’s office.
The bill drafting request dated July 23 also asks that the bill allow service agencies to be able to collaborate without violating confidentiality requirements.
“We wanted it on record and to be transparent that there were only two changes that we wanted,” Vos’s spokeswoman Kit Beyer said in a statement Tuesday. “It was done for future public discussions on the issue that will hopefully happen this session.”
Despite Vos’s assurances that no changes were being sought, those who fought against the earlier surprise proposals said the fact that a bill draft was requested is worrisome.
“Open government advocates need to be on the lookout for another sneak attack on the public records law,” Brendan Fischer, attorney for the Center for Media and Democracy, said in a statement.
The bill Vos requested be drafted would allow the Legislature to block the public’s access to information, said Bill Lueders, president of the Freedom of Information Council, which advocates for open records access.
“It would give them carte blanche to deny access to any record basically whenever they feel like it,” he said.
Rule changes must be approved by a vote of both the state Assembly and Senate, but they are not subject to public hearings and do not need approval of the governor.
Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said the move shows the need to amend the state constitution to include protections for open records, as Democrats have proposed.