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View from around the state: Secret meetings strike again at the state Capitol

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

Senate Republicans were “giddy” about tightening voting rules in Wisconsin during a closed-door meeting in 2011, a former GOP staffer testified in federal court this week.

Republican Sens. Mary Lazich of New Berlin and Glenn Grothman (now a congressman from Campbellsport) stressed to their partisan colleagues that a photo ID requirement could limit voting in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee and on college campuses, giving Republicans a competitive advantage.

“What I’m concerned about here is winning,” Grothman said back then, according to former Senate staffer Todd Allbaugh, who testified at the start of a trial Monday over a lawsuit contending voter ID and other restrictions illegally discriminate against students and minorities.

Other Republican senators in the room five years ago dispute Allbaugh’s recollections, with their attorney dismissing his testimony as “hearsay.” U.S. District Judge James Peterson is sorting it all out.

But this much is clear: Large groups of lawmakers shouldn’t be huddling in secret to discuss anything related to major public policy proposals. No other government decision-making body in Wisconsin – not school boards, city councils, county boards or even obscure subcommittees — is allowed such a blanket exemption from Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

Yet the Legislature grants itself this glaring loophole: Republicans and Democrats in each legislative house can routinely meet behind closed doors as partisan groups, often with a majority of senators or representatives present. No members of the opposite political party, news reporters or the public are allowed to sit and listen.

This secrecy lets the majority party — now the Republicans, previously the Democrats — debate and count votes on what they plan to do before moving to the floor of the Senate or Assembly to make it official with a united front. The partisan privacy makes it easier for legislative leaders to pressure members to follow the party line and cut deals. It’s part of the reason fierce partisanship is so rampant on both sides of the aisle.

Secret meetings at the state Capitol also make it harder for citizens to follow what their elected leaders are doing and hold them accountable for decisions.

Past efforts to apply the same open meetings standards to lawmakers that other public officials must follow have failed, despite bipartisan support. Only public pressure will force more openness. And Senate Republicans just provided another prime example of why “legislative party caucuses” should always be open. It’s in these meetings where the big decisions about spending money and adopting policy are made.

Two Madison aldermen just ran afoul of the state’s open meetings law by discussing changes to city committees without posting the required public notice. The two sit on a three-member subcommittee, so they formed a quorum.

If that’s a violation — and it should be, to ensure the public knows what its elected officials are up to — then surely a majority of the Wisconsin Senate huddled in a back room of the state Capitol demands the light of day.

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