6 Lessons of the Foiled Assault on Open Government in Wisconsin

July 6, 2015

The Republican leaders in the Wisconsin legislature tried to pull a fast one last week, but they didn’t get away with it.

Right before the July 4 holiday weekend, they snuck provisions into the budget that would have excluded just about every legislative communication from the open records law. It also would have granted legislators a new legal privilege to refuse to disclose information, and to gag their current and former staff members. And it would have gagged legislative agencies, as well.

But now they’re in full retreat, and they say they are going to pull those provisions in their entirety.

Here are some of the lessons of their failed assault on open government.

Lesson 1: The Republican Leadership Has No Shame

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Joint Finance co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren refused to say who introduced these provisions or what involvement Gov. Scott Walker had. Walker himself also declined to comment on this, though the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he promised not to veto it. No one is taking responsibility for this obscene assault on open government. But one thing is certain: It could not have occurred without the consent of these leaders.

Lesson 2: Some Republican Officeholders Showed a Spine

Fortunately for Wisconsinites, there were Republican officeholders who publicly broke with their leadership on this issue. Wisconsin’s attorney general, Brad Schimel, denounced it. And Republican State Senator Rob Cowles not only condemned it; he said he would not vote for the budget if it contained this assault.

Lesson 3: The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council Is Invaluable

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council has long been a strong voice for open and transparent government. Its president, Bill Lueders, blew the whistle on this one, loudly and clearly, calling the Republican leaders “miserable cowards” for introducing this unprecedented assault. And he issued an SOS that sparked the firestorm of protest.

Lesson 4: Wisconsin’s Editors Rose to the Occasion

Newspaper editors around the state responded with one voice to this, regardless of whether they’re conservative or liberal. They recognized this obscenity for what it was, and rallied their readers to oppose it.

Lesson 5: The People of Wisconsin Expect Better

The citizenry of Wisconsin expressed their disgust at the Republican leadership for pulling this stunt, letting their representatives know over the July 4 weekend that we value our tradition of clean, open, and transparent government, and that we expect better from our elected officials.

Lesson 6: This Is No Way to Pass Laws

Sneaking radical measures into a budget reconciliation bill at the last moment with no public hearings is no way for a representative body to function. It’s wrong when Democrats do it, and it’s wrong when Republicans do it. This needs to end.