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Public Records: Open, Again, For Debate

Republicans approve last-minute budgetary additions that limit access to public records, but those additions might not be here to stay.

Late yesterday, the state’s Joint Finance Committee voted to restrict access to public records, in a last-minute addition to the 2015-2017 budget. The entire motion bears only the committee’s c0-chair’s names, and no one is admitting to inserting the motions. When questioned by Democrats during the hearing, a representative of the Legislative Reference Bureau could only says that there were “multiple” authors.

The new limitations restrict public access to legislative drafting papers, like the papers that revealed Gov. Walker’s administration was toying with the deletion of the “Wisconsin Idea” from the university system’s mission. They would also also allow all elected officials to determine what, if any, records are part of a deliberative legislative process, and if the elected official decides those written or verbal communications are part of that process, they are no longer subject to open records law. This motion covers any elected official from the governor and legislators, to a county executive or supervisor.

The entire 999 motion with its 67 budgetary additions can be found here and here. The vote came down along party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor and all of the Democrats opposed. UPDATE: Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has told the magazine he opposes the measure, too.

At about 1:15 today, Wisconsin Radio Network’s Andrew Beckett tweeted the following:

WisconsinEye has audio and video of the entire meeting. Part 2 includes the deliberation about the open records motions.

Below we break down the vote:

In favor


The MacIver Institute, a conservative think-tank that opposes the changes to the open records law, has an edited video of part of Sen. Jon Erpenbach’s response to the proposal.  “This is probably the darkest day and the one single vote that every single member of this committee will ever, ever have in your entire career,” he says.

“It doesn’t get and will not get any worse than this. I don’t care what the issue is, I don’t care what’s coming up in the future. This by far and away will be the vote, when you’re 90 years old, you’ll be going, “Damn, I wish I had that one back.”

Rep. Dale Kooyenga later protested that there is “some good stuff” in the 67-part motion. For instance, the restriction on CCAP files, in cases where charges have been dismissed, allows the “young and dumb” the “opportunity to not be judged.”




Claire Hanan worked at the magazine as an editor from 2012-2017. She edited the Culture section and wrote stories about all sorts of topics, including the arts, fashion, politics and more. In 2016, she was a finalist for best profile writing at the City and Regional Magazine Awards for her story "In A Flash." In 2014, she won the the Milwaukee Press gold award for best public service story for editing "Handle With Care," a service package about aging in Milwaukee. Before all this, she attended the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and New York University's Summer Publishing Institute.