Republicans, Meet Thine Enemy

Attorney General Brad Schimel came out swinging against an abominable budget provision that shuts the blinds on access to information that belongs to the public. The AG took to Twitter making it clear he does not support the changes to our state’s Open Records laws.

He didn’t stop at one.

Schimel also used his office’s Twitter feed to make an official two-part statement lambasting the “Darkness Provision” (as I call it).

The Darkness Provision was included – perhaps in a lame attempt to keep it secret, or something – in the state budget that passed the Joint Finance Committee. The State Journal reports here.

The Republican members of the committee disclaim any knowledge of how the language got in the budget, ostensibly meaning none of them are particularly married to it.

While nobody thinks the media is fair in its treatment of Republicans versus Democrats, members of the media are rightly shocked.

“This is the single most sweeping and outrageous affront to Wisconsin’s tradition of open government that I have seen in my quarter-century of involvement with the (Wisconsin) Freedom of Information Council,” council president Bill Lueders said.

Lueders, like the vast majority of the media doubtlessly a liberal, has a solid case. Unlike most statements from adherents of The Leftist cause, this one isn’t outrageously hyperbolic – it’s justifiably hyperbolic.

Democrat Senator Jon Erpenbach commented, “Deals will be done in secret…Corruption will happen. And nobody’s going to know about it.” Rep. Chris Taylor said, “It’s in the cloak of darkness that you want more darkness.”

It’s painful to admit: Taylor and Erpenbach are right. Worse, the GOP put the Democrats in their Suburban, drove them to the high ground, and dropped them off. It’s an obscene and a terrible mistake.

So what does the Darkness Provision actually do? According to the State Journal report, it:

  • Exempts from the definition of public records “communications and other materials, including opinions, analyses, briefings, background information, recommendations, suggestions, drafts, correspondence about drafts, and notes, created or prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action.” So everything except press releases?
  • Gives legislators “legal privilege” which amounts to broad discretion in what records can and should be released. “Wow, that’s embarrassing…I’m deciding the public doesn’t have to see it.”
  • Requires the Legislative Reference Bureau to keep “drafting files” confidential and lifts a requirement to retain files from previous legislative sessions that are often used to research the birth of legislation, including the intent behind the introduction of a bill. Water under the bridge…nothing to see here…fire up the shredder.
  • Similarly, “The motion also eliminates the requirement that the LRB maintain all drafting files for legislation during the current legislative session and release those files for public view once the Legislature adjourns.” Mind=blown.

Schimel isn’t the only person on the right to oppose the Darkness Provisions. Orville Seymer of Citizens for Responsible Government, which typically leans conservative, said the provisions “are just terrible,” according to the WSJ.

If every Joint Finance Republican was so quick to disown the Darkness Provisions, ditching them should be a cinch.

But if Republicans in the legislature have suddenly morphed from reform-minded crusaders on behalf of taxpayers to a hoard of power-hungry dictators in the tradition of Barack Obama and they pass the budget with these provision included, then Gov. Scott Walker will need to use his line-item veto. If he doesn’t, he’s become a coward.

(Interest-of-fairness statement: On the other side of the rift, if members of the media are truly interested in openness and transparency to hold accountable more than just Republicans, then they will surely begin a systematic campaign to make the public aware of just how the Obama Administration is the least transparent administration since Nixon, and maybe worse…but I’m not going to hold my breath and wait for that to happen).

Its hypocrisy aside, the old ivory towers of mainstream media are still the arbiters of public opinion and therefore their concerns – the concerns of openness of information that belongs to the people of Wisconsin – are legitimate.

The Democratic Party in Wisconsin at the moment does not present much of a threat to Republican control. The election of a virtual noob to chair their party won’t lead to a renaissance, and their bench consists of a very lonely Jennifer Shilling. Therefore, the biggest threat to GOP control is…

The GOP itself. And the hubris that comes with power and that inevitably leads to decline, defeat, and humiliation.

Ironically, leading Republicans like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos bent over backwards to backpedal on important legislation like the repeal of Prevailing Wage, the Bucks Arena, and road funding, perhaps believing moderating a reform agenda is the way to avert a rough election cycle in 2016.

The “Darkness Provision” is a shift from thoughtful and courageous reform to cowardly wagon-circling. It must be removed, or I fear the Republican Party will pay a price far greater than the market value of being legally able to reply to an open records request with a middle finger and a smarmy grin.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.