President Ronald Reagan once quipped "The nine scariest words in the English language are 'I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help'." With apologies to The Gipper, the six scariest words coming from someone in government is "You don't need to know that".
Unfortunately, the 12 Republican members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee said that to everyone here in Wisconsin on Thursday by inserting a last-minute measure into the state budget that will gut the state's Open Records Law. The measure would exempt many records from public disclosure--including e-emails and other correspondences, research and drafting files of proposed new bills. It would effectively shut out the public from learning and understanding how a law was drafted before it came for a vote in the Legislature.
The change comes as more laws and public policies are delivered in boiler-plate, ready-to-introduce on the floor form from special interest groups like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or the State Innovation Exchange (SiX). These groups write the laws, contact some conservative or liberal lawmakers in each state to see who might support it and email over a copy that can be printed off and brought right to a committee meeting or to the clerk. Legislators just paste their names to the bottom and viola it looks like they have "come up with a great idea to help our constituents".
Obviously, as a reporter I vehemently oppose this bald-faced attempt to limit our access to public records. And as a Wisconsinite I am insulted that my representatives think that they should be allowed to conduct their business behind closed doors. What's ironic is that many of the Republicans who voted for this would be the first to criticize Hillary Clinton for her illegal use of a private server to handle her State Department emails--and they would gladly add their voices to the chorus of criticism when she doesn't turn over all of those emails. But ask them for their own emails--or on how they just happened to "come up" with a proposed bill and suddenly they think we have no right to know.
This measure was fittingly approved by Joint Finance under the cover of darkness at around 9:00 last night--on the day before all of their Capitol offices are closed for the holiday, the voters are all hitting the road to get away for the weekend and more than a few news outlets are running on reduced staffing and content. It was almost like a reverse-information dump--taking away news that might be embarrassing at a time we won't have time to notice--instead of releasing all of the bad news late on Friday.
So why did Republicans do this? Because they can. They control both houses of the Legislature and the Governor's Mansion--so there won't be anyone to stop them--and to lock you out of the process. Which proves another old political adage from John Dalberg-Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".