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Dems Unveil Bill To Require Public Hearings On Non-Fiscal Budget Measures

Proposal Comes After Last-Minute Attempt To Restrict Open Records Law

Gilman Halsted/WPR

Democratic state legislators say a bill they introduced Monday will protect the state’s open records law from the kind of changes approved by the Republican-dominated budget committee last week.

After an outpouring of public criticism, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leaders have promised to remove policy changes that would have exempted bill-drafting documents and other legislative material from the open records law. But Democrats say they want to prevent any non-fiscal policy changes from making it into the budget in the future without a public hearing.

“We’re tired of seeing Republicans throw things in at the last second hoping no one will notice over a holiday weekend,” said Stevens Point Rep. Katrina Shankland, one of the bill’s authors. “And this, at the very least, will allow for both the media and the general public to know what’s happening to be able to report on it and get that information to us.”

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The bill would require all policy items to get a public hearing in a standing committee before becoming part of the budget.

Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council said the changes Republicans wanted to make would have kept secret all deliberations leading up to the drafting and introduction of a bill or budget item, including emails from constituents who either opposed or supported the bill.

Lueders said he’d like to see the Democrats’ bill go farther by barring any legislation from making it to the floor of the Legislature unless at least one lawmaker takes credit for proposing it. He said the Legislature shouldn’t be able to vote on anonymous legislation.

So far, no single legislator has taken credit for proposing the open records exemptions, but many GOP lawmakers have supported the idea. Rep. Dean Knudson of Hudson said the changes “would clarify (the open records law) and make it easier for us all to stay on the right side of the law.”

Others said the changes would protect the privacy of constituents who write to their legislators.

Meanwhile, a pending lawsuit filed by the Progressive Magazine and the Center for Media and Democracy is seeking records from Walker that outline his plans, later scrapped, to change the language of the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement that describe the so-called Wisconsin Idea. In court documents,the governor has argued the records should remain secret to protect the deliberative process of government.