Troubling Pattern Emerging of Challenges to Open Government

Wisconsin’s once-proud tradition of open, transparent government has suffered a series of blows in recent weeks.   A disturbing pattern has emerged of attempts to block citizen access to information about the activities of state government and to undermine the foundations of ethics and accountability in our state.

This most recent set of challenges to open government started in early July when, at the very last minute, the legislature's Joint Finance Committee slipped a number of proposals into the state budget that would do away with large sections of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law. The provisions would have allowed the Governor and legislators to hide their communications from open records requests, and would have shut down the bill drafting database that lets the public know what instructions bill drafters received and from who.   Fortunately, state news media were quick to report the stealth move, and citizen outrage was immediate and widespread.   By the time the budget bill reached the Senate floor, an amendment was introduced to remove these provisions.

In fact, the blowback was so strong that the Joint Finance co-chairs quickly disavowed having the open records proposal drafted, and Governor Walker said publicly that the proposal “didn’t come from us.”  Ironically, the very open records provisions under attack were used by reporters to show that Governor Walker had in fact asked Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) to draft the proposal.  When elected officials have to hide their activities in the shadows, you can bet they’re not doing something they want to explain to the public. 

In recent months, Republican leaders have also been beating the drum against the Government Accountability Board, the non-partisan agency charged with overseeing Wisconsin's ethics and elections laws.  Recently, an unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal, relying on vague innuendos and unnamed sources, directly attacked GAB Executive Director Kevin Kennedy.  Republican legislators were quick to express outrage, demanding that Kennedy be ousted, the GAB be shut down and the non-partisan retired judges who oversee it be replaced by partisan political appointees.  

The GAB has a national reputation for excellence, and is often held up as a model for other states. It begs the question: Is this non-partisan watchdog agency really being targeted because of some supposed bias, or just because it’s doing its job?

The most recent attempt to weaken government transparency happened last week. Late Friday afternoon Senator Rick Gudex (R-Fond du Lac) and Representative Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) circulated a bill that would remove legislators from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Board of Directors.  Since the majority of the Board are private business people appointed by the Governor, legislators are the only members who directly represent the taxpayers who fund WEDC.  The proposal is ironic, because Sen. Gudex and Rep. Hutton are currently the two Republican legislative members of the WEDC Board.  First Governor Walker tried to wash his hands of WEDC by having himself removed as its board chairman, and now Sen. Gudex and Rep. Hutton apparently want to walk away too.

Over its brief four-year history, WEDC has been shaken by mismanagement, massive employee turnover, failure to follow the law, the loss of millions in taxpayer dollars in improperly vetted deals, and the withholding of information from its Board of Directors.  I think the people of Wisconsin want greater oversight at WEDC, not less.

Just as with the attempt to dismantle our open records law and the assault on the GAB, trying to remove legislators from the WEDC Board is just one more attempt by the majority party to roll back our standards of open, transparent and accountable state government.  I don’t think taxpayers will go for it.