MADISON, Wis. (AP) — In a sudden reversal amid a stinging backlash, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislative leaders said they agreed Saturday to completely remove a part of the proposed state budget that would severely roll back open records laws.
Walker announced the decision in a joint statement Saturday with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and the co-chairs of the joint budget committee. They said that they're committed to open and accountable government.
"After substantive discussion over the last day, we have agreed that the provisions relating to any changes in the state's open records law will be removed from the budget in its entirety," the statement said. "... The intended policy goal of these changes was to provide a reasonable solution to protect constituents' privacy and to encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff in developing policy. It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way."
The restrictions, which Republicans on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee slipped into the proposed budget late Thursday, would shield nearly everything created by state and local government officials from Wisconsin's open records law, including drafts of legislation and staff communications. The proposal drew heavy criticism from liberals and conservatives alike, and was the subject of a withering front-page editorial in Saturday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The sudden furor had become a serious distraction for Walker as he prepares to formally announce his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on July 13. He told reporters before an Independence Day parade in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa on Saturday morning that he planned to discuss the matter with legislative leaders after the weekend, the Journal Sentinel reported.
"My hope is, that after talking with them on Monday, we get to the point where it's either out completely or there's significant changes to it," he said.
The joint statement, issued at mid-afternoon on Saturday, made it clear that they didn't wait. The statement said the Legislature will form a committee to study the issue and allow for public discussion and input outside of the budget process.
Walker didn't specifically say in Wauwatosa whether he and his office were involved in crafting the proposed changes, whether he objected to them in advance, or specifically say who proposed the overhaul. The joint statement didn't address those points either.
Among the issues that have dogged Walker recently is the performance of a job creation agency he championed. The Wisconsin State Journal used the open records law that Republicans wanted to tighten to report in May that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation made a loan to one of Walker's top donors. That report led other media organizations, including The Associated Press, to look into the matter, and the agency also came under scrutiny from the Legislature.
Walker's pre-parade comments were echoed by some Republican legislators Saturday, including two who voted for the changes just two days earlier.
Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chairwoman of the powerful budget committee, said they are now "working to eliminate" the open records limits.
"We are going to get rid of that," Darling said at Fox Point's Fourth of July parade.
And Rep. Dale Kooyenga said at Wauwatosa's parade that lawmakers were working on changes.