While Wisconsin voters tracked the doomed presidential ambitions of Republican Gov. Scott Walker this summer, legislators in Madison brawled over changes that Walker and his allies had proposed to the state’s open records law.
As a parched summer gave way to September in the state’s leafy capital on five lakes, the town was buzzing over news that weeks earlier, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had begun work to draft a bill that would exempt the Legislature’s two houses from the state’s records law. The draft would allow lawmakers to write their own rules governing whether their emails, memos and other documents, all currently considered public, would instead be shielded from view.
The move came to light only after a liberal advocacy group released emails about the plan that it obtained through a public records request. And the Vos effort came just weeks after a failed attempt by Republican leaders to add to a budget bill even broader exemptions from the open records law.
Immediately after the draft surfaced, Vos held a news conference to say his office had abandoned the effort for this session. "We're not changing the open records law,” Vos said.
But transparency advocates saw something more sinister. “I think what is happening is an aberration, and a major departure from past Wisconsin tradition,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit advocacy group. “What we are seeing, for the first time in my experience, is the emergence of a culture of contempt for the public's right to know.”
The differences of opinion in the Badger State go beyond public records. Almost from the day Walker took office in 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature has waged war on Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board — the latest iteration of a state ethics watchdog. The governor also led a successful push to strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
All of this has contributed to Wisconsin earning a score of 64, or a D, placing it 20th among 50 in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
Over the past few weeks, both houses of the Legislature have also approved sweeping changes to the state's campaign finance laws and a bill that would dismantle the Government Accountability Board by splitting it into two agencies, though the Assembly must now approve versions of the bills passed by the Senate. Last month, Walker signed a law that prohibits prosecutors from using a form of secret investigation — known as a John Doe — to probe allegations of public corruption. None of the recent moves factor into Wisconsin's D grade because they came after the project's study period had ended.
Wisconsin earned a grade of C- in 2012, when the State Integrity Investigation was first carried out. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.