As he prepares to launch his 2016 presidential bid, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is caught up in a hometown controversy that is going from bad to worse.
The governor—whom former White House counsel John Dean refers to as “more Nixonian than Nixon”—has never been much for transparency. But a botched attempt by his legislative allies to gut the state’s open-records law has blown up on Walker in a big way.
It all started last week when Republicans on the legislative Joint Finance Committee added to the committee’s state budget plan—which Walker says he wants to sign before announcing Monday—a scheme to gut Wisconsin’s historically strong open-records law.
Without public hearings or meaningful debate, the 12 GOP legislators moved at the very last minute of the committee’s budget deliberations to insert a radical rewrite of standards governing public access to information about how legislation is developed and how elected officials carry out their duties.
What these legislators proposed was an end to transparency in Wisconsin, with a sweeping plan to shut down the avenues by which citizens and journalists can monitor the most significant actions of Walker’s administration, Walker-controlled state agencies, and the Legislature.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders got it exactly right when he said after the committee voted 12-4 for the plan: “Our state’s tradition of open government is on the line.”
Wisconsinites rallied in opposition to the attack on open government. Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel declared, “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy, and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction.” Republican state Senator Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said Friday he would vote against the entire budget if it included the changes—the only appropriate response for legislators—and announced, “I was shocked and appalled to see the attack on open and transparent government last night by the Joint Committee on Finance. Limiting public access to legislative communications and records is against all I have stood for while in office, and I will not support a budget that includes this assault on democracy.”