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Thread: Wisconsin Republicans propose limiting public access to records

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    Wisconsin Republicans propose limiting public access to records

    Nearly all records created by state and local government officials, including bill drafts and communications with staff, would not be subject to the Wisconsin open records law under a sweeping surprise change Republicans introduced in committee Thursday as an amendment to the state budget.

    The changes were part of a 24-page final motion to the budget that makes 67 alterations to the two-year, $70 billion spending plan that the Legislature was expected to vote on next week. The panel was to vote on adding it to the budget Thursday night. The full Legislature, along with Gov. Scott Walker, would have to sign off before they would become law.

    Numerous new protections would be extended to the 132 members of the Legislature, their staff, support agencies, and all other state and local government officials, including members of school boards.

    "It's astonishing," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. "It is a full-frontal assault on the open records law as it pertains to the state Legislature and other agencies of government."

    Under the provision, all "deliberative materials" would be exempt from the open records law. That includes all materials prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action or in drafting a document or communication.

    The exemptions are even more extensive for members of the Legislature and their staff. They would not have to disclose communications between one another, the public or others who work for the Legislature, such as staff in the clerk's and sergeant at arms offices. The protection extends to a wide array of legislative business, including drafting bills, developing public policy, all aspects of legislative proceedings such as committee hearings, and investigations and oversight.

    Legislative service agencies would be required to keep all communications, records and information confidential.

    Lueders said lawmakers were pushing for the changes because of embarrassing recent stories, including one about Gov. Scott Walker proposing the elimination of the Wisconsin Idea from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin. Notes related to that proposal, which are available to the public on the Legislature's website, were widely reported to show communication between Walker's staff and bill drafters.

    "This is cowardly," Lueders said. "It's an affront to the citizens of Wisconsin, and I hope there is tremendous uprising to it. ... This will absolutely lead to corruption and abuses."

    Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, a member of the budget committee, said he didn't know who had requested the change. When asked if he thought the state would be better off with the new restrictions he said, "Don't ask me. I didn't write it."

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