Sunshine Week Highlights Open Government Setbacks, Victories

By State Senator Julie Lassa


This is Sunshine Week, the week that news outlets opine about the importance of open government laws and the public’s right to know. It’s a hot topic in Wisconsin; recent months have seen some of the most direct attacks on transparent government in recent memory.   Sunshine Week is a reminder that citizens need to remain alert, because there have been repeated attempts to weaken their ability to know what their government is doing.

Transparency was dealt a major blow in July when the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that it had suddenly become legal for candidates to coordinate their activities with “interest advocacy” groups.  Advocacy groups are the ones running many of the nasty ads appearing on TV currently as election season approaches.   These groups are not required to disclose their contributors, and the whole point of creating this category of group was so that “dark money” could not be directed by the candidate’s campaigns.  Now, as long as the issue groups don’t come right out and tell you who to vote for, they can serve as virtual arms of a campaign organization, and the people of Wisconsin will never learn who is spending millions of dollars to influence our elections.

Transparency in government took other hits in 2015 as well.  The non-partisan Government Accountability Board,  a group of retired judges responsible for investigating violations of ethics and campaign laws, was abolished by the Republican majority in the Legislature, and replaced by two new organizations, both governed by partisan political appointees.  The GAB was nationally renowned as a model of excellence in enforcing good government laws.   Its successor organization is designed to create partisan gridlock and prevent wrongdoing from being uncovered, keeping citizens in the dark about the political process.

And Republican lawmakers decided to exempt themselves and other members of the political class from the state’s John Doe laws, which enabled prosecutors to investigate potential criminal activities without powerful officials being able to intimidate their witnesses.   Average citizens are still subject to such investigations, but politicians have been able to further draw a veil over possible illegal activities.

Every now and then, however, the public is successful in defending its right to know what goes on in government.  In early July 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.   As I walked in Fourth of July parades, I was pleased to hear from many of my constituents who were aware of – and angry about – the stealth maneuver.  Other legislators apparently got an earful as well, because by the time the budget bill reached the Senate floor, an amendment was introduced to remove these provisions.

This victory underscores the most important lesson of Sunshine Week.  Open, transparent government laws don’t just help the news media do its job.  They enable citizens to know what’s going on in their government, so that by activities such as voting and expressing their views to their representatives, they can serve as a check on government excesses.  Open government is vital to a healthy democracy, and we should all fight to preserve it.