Assembly Speaker Robin Vos requested the controversial changes to the state’s open records law that would have significantly diminished the public’s ability to monitor how its government works, records obtained by the State Journal show.
Vos is cited as the “draft requester” for the legislation in a June 29 email from Legislative Reference Bureau attorney Michael Gallagher to the offices of legislative leadership and to staff on the Legislative Council and in the state’s fiscal and reference bureaus.
The email is among about 1,000 pages of documents obtained on Wednesday by the State Journal from the office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
It provides the clearest evidence yet of the origin of the records proposal, and shows Vos’ office coordinated the drafting of the ultimate bill language.
Vos, Fitzgerald and Gov. Scott Walker all have acknowledged involvement in drafting the language to change the records law.
The language would have blocked the public from reviewing nearly all records created by state and local lawmakers or their aides, including electronic communications and the drafting files of legislation. It also would have created an exemption to the state’s open records law for materials considered to be part of the “deliberative process” in crafting legislation.
It was added to the 2015-17 state budget as part of a final, catch-all amendment and approved by the Joint Finance Committee on July 2 — hours after it became public. At the time, officials refused to say where the proposals came from.
But amid tremendous public backlash from a bipartisan set of lawmakers and elected officials, liberal and conservative advocacy groups, open government proponents, news organizations and state residents, Vos, Fitzgerald and Walker later agreed to remove the language.
The idea was discussed at least as early as May, the records show, though not released publicly until July.
In a May 27 email, Legislative Fiscal Bureau analyst Paul Onsager asked Fitzgerald aide Tad Ottman whether “there will be an amendment to legislative records in the wrap-up motion, as well as any related amendment summary or bill draft?” Ottman replied: “We’re still discussing that. At this point we are not pushing it but the Assembly is still looking at revised language.”
Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said Vos was not available for comment Wednesday afternoon after the State Journal obtained the records. But in a statement late Wednesday, Beyer said:
“At the time of the email you reference, the concepts being discussed by Assembly Leadership were simple: Returning legislative powers ceded to the Executive Branch, and the idea that the Legislature should be able to set its own common sense policies on open records and retention of drafting files. The intention was to study the practices around the country and update our policies to catch up with advances in technology and to protect constituents.
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“As budget talks went on into June and others engaged in the discussion, more ideas were added. What was voted on was ultimately a collaborative effort by the Senate, the Assembly, and the Governor’s office.”
Fitzgerald spokeswoman Myranda Tanck declined to comment specifically on the record but reiterated Fitzgerald has said he was in the room when the proposals were agreed to.
Vos aide Andrew Hanus emailed back and forth in June with attorneys from the LRB and included Ottman to discuss bill language. As of June 15, the draft language did not include provisions about keeping private records that were part of a “deliberative process,” a measure that ended up in the final proposal drafted the week of June 29.
In admitting Walker’s involvement in the drafting of the changes, spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said on July 7, “Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation.”
Walker’s office is being sued over denying open records requests by asserting that records that are part of a deliberative process should be private. Currently, state law does not permit such an exemption.
The records from Fitzgerald’s office also reveal the statewide backlash that lawmakers faced in response to the proposed changes. They include hundreds of emails to lawmakers criticizing the measures, including a number that demanded to know which lawmaker initially requested the changes.
“Not only is this disturbing on many levels, but is a slap in the face to our founding fathers,” said an email from Marie Goffard.
An email from Timothy Patrick asks lawmakers: “Have you no shame? Your vote for draconian restrictions on Wisconsin Open Records law, the very week of our national celebration of independence, is beyond belief.”
Kent Kruse of Sturgeon Bay wrote: “I am 77 years old and a strong conservative. This is the first time in my life that my anger has driven me to personally express my disappointment to an elected official. Congratulations!”
“I am not a liberal by any stretch of the imagination,” wrote Jim Stroschein of Mineral Point in an email dated July 4. “Your attempts to limit access to public records are deeply disappointing and the Joint Finance Committee’s vote on Thursday night qualifies as the most disturbing action I have ever seen in Wisconsin politics.”