April: Support lawmakers’ effort to end secret meetings

2009 Columns

State lawmakers get plenty of perks – ornate Capitol offices, attentive staff, free parking on the Square, daily allowances, generous pay, health insurance and pensions.

But the biggest perk of all is hardly noticed or ever discussed.

Senators and representatives get to meet with their partisan pals behind closed doors in secret meetings whenever they want. And that’s where the big decisions on state spending and policy are really made.

It’s time to open up these meetings to the light of day. It’s time to rescind the Legislature’s special exemption from Wisconsin’s open meetings law. Democrats and Republicans in each house should no longer be allowed to meet in secret as partisan groups, often with a majority of senators or representatives present.

A handful of lawmakers, led by Reps. Cory Mason, D-Racine, and Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, are trying to ban this offensive practice with Assembly Bill 143. The legislation would apply the open meetings law to what are known as “legislative party caucuses” – meetings in which all members of one political party or the other in one house or the other meet to plot strategy, count votes and cut deals.

Reps. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, Jeff Wood, I-Bloomer, and Sen. Alan Lasee, R-De Pere, have so far signed on as co-sponsors of AB 143. They deserve high praise for taking this noble stand.

Only strong support from the public will force legislative leaders to give the bill a public hearing and vote.

Mason, elected to the Legislature just three years ago, explained the dire need for opening these often secret legislative meetings to public scrutiny in a recent column sent to Wisconsin newspapers as part of Sunshine Week, an annual campaign to highlight and boost the public’s right to know.

“On days the Legislature is in session, both parties in both houses of the Legislature split into groups to discuss the day’s calendar,” Mason explained. “It is in these meetings that most of the real legislative debate occurs. Members suss out their positions, cajole people to a certain view, and reach a general consensus. We employ shuttle diplomacy, devise strategy and argue passionately for our respective positions. In other words, it’s where the action happens.

“In and of itself, this is a useful exercise,” Mason continued. “It lets members pose questions to each other, discuss possible amendments and ensures that legislators are better informed before they create new policy.

“The objectionable part,” he concludes, “is that we close these meetings to public view.”

Mason and his colleagues pushing AB 143 are right. There’s no excuse for secrecy when the public’s business is being done.

Scott Milfred is opinion page editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, (www.wisfoic.org), is a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the FOIC.