KEEP OUR GOVERNMENT OPEN
BY KATRINA SHANKLAND
Representative (D) Stevens Point
It’s been one year since Republican legislators brazenly attacked and diminished Wisconsin’s proud tradition of open and transparent government. While many Wisconsinites were making plans for cookouts and fireworks with friends and family to celebrate America’s independence, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee were busy unanimously voting to gut our state’s open records law, restrict your freedom to access your government, and shield themselves from the very citizens who elect them.
Fortunately, the backlash to this proposal was swift and severe. Legislative Democrats, media outlets, citizens, and advocacy groups across the state immediately called out Republican leaders for their power-drunk move that would have substantially shielded public access to government documents and records. Because of your advocacy, the gutting of the open records law was removed from the state budget – but through open records, we discovered this was a concerted effort by Governor Walker and Republican leaders in the Senate and Assembly.
Why were Republican leaders in Wisconsin so eager to change the state’s open records law in the first place?
What do they have to hide from the people who put them in office and pay their salaries? Let’s take a quick look at some of the eye-opening scandals that have been uncovered through numerous open records requests since Governor Walker took office:
Gov. Walker faced considerable backlash when proposing to gut one of our state’s governing principles, the Wisconsin Idea. Walker claimed it was deleted through a simple “drafting error,” but emails released through an open records request show the governor’s office was misleading the public. It was his office that had requested the changes to this cornerstone idea of our state’s democracy, his trampling on a century-old tradition. We learned last June through an open records request that at the urging of a top Walker official,
WEDC (Gov. Walker’s fledgling jobs agency) continued to pursue giving economic development assistance to a business owner, even after they learned that he had promised to use the state loan money to pay off the lease on his Maserati.
In February, investigative journalists discovered through open records requests that Governor Walker’s Department of Natural Resources actually blacklisted citizens concerned with the quality of their drinking water by placing them on a “do not respond” list.
Additionally, the Walker administration is still withholding vital public records, and judging from their past actions, they will continue their campaign of cover-ups. For over a year, WEDC has failed to produce requested records regarding financial awards issued to companies without formal review. The state’s Department of Corrections has withheld and delayed the release of records related to serious issues at the state’s youth prisons. Walker’s office has also failed to release requested records regarding the governor’s plan to privatize our state’s lauded long-term care program.
This is all part of a larger coordinated attack on Wisconsin’s tradition of clean, open government led by Republican leaders. Last fall, Republican legislators opened Wisconsin up to cronyism and corruption by blasting open the doors to corporate dark money in politics. They neutered the state’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board and turned the agency into a partisan lapdog. They even passed a law to give special treatment to politicians being investigated for corruption, and they gutted the state’s heralded civil service protections, inviting a system of political patronage and paybacks.
Assembly Democrats are steadfastly committed to clean, open, and transparent government. We’ve made it a priority to increase access to government records by introducing a constitutional amendment so open records are an unassailable constitutional right in Wisconsin. We also introduced legislation to strengthen ethics and campaign finance laws, and affirm our state’s open meetings laws.
Transparency is essential for a government of, by, and for the people. It’s clear the governor and Republican legislators are dedicated to making a government by and for themselves. It’s on all of us to demand better.