February: Lawmaking: What’s open to one should be open to all

2007 Columns

Q. What do Florida lawmakers know that Wisconsin legislators don’t?

A. That sharing information with the public doesn’t impede good government.

The current lack of openness is lawmaking is a significant matter for our state. If Wisconsin legislators – and Gov. Jim Doyle – truly are serious about reducing partisanship and restoring public confidence in the legislative process, they should consider a “sunshine” provision like the one Florida has embraced.

Florida officials have incorporated a simple provision in their state open records law. The provision says that a draft of a bill analysis or fiscal note can’t remain confidential once anyone outside legislative employ has seen the document.

However, Wisconsin lawmakers have retreated from this concept faster than a vampire shrinks from the bright morning sun. “We need secrecy to do our business,” they claim. Do they?

Former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager didn’t agree. In fact, she filed a lawsuit to challenge the notion that lawmakers can selectively share such information with some people but deny it to others. Even though Lautenschlager has left office, her case against former state Sen. David Zien, R-Eau Claire, and current Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, remains active in a Dane County court.

Two private law firms hired to defend the Legislature’s case have run up a tab exceeding a quarter of a million dollars. For what? Essentially, to help individual lawmakers maintain political advantage in passing legislation, catching potential opponents unawares.

At the state Capitol, bill drafts are supposed to be kept “confidential” within the Legislature. But in practice, legislators may decide to share drafts with selected individuals, such as lobbyists. Gunderson allegedly shared a bill draft with a National Rifle Association representative but refused to share it with Justice Department attorneys.

With such collusion, is it any wonder that partisanship is so intense and unproductive? The quality and civility of Wisconsin lawmaking would certainly improve if everyone had equal access to the process of creating new laws.

There’s no legitimate purpose served by sharing draft legislation with selected third parties while keeping it secret from the public or another branch of government. More openness might encourage reasonable compromises — or perhaps yield even better ideas for addressing important public issues. And a legislative sponsor still would have final say on the measure introduced for legislative consideration.

Has such openness impeded the Florida Legislature? Not at all. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association checked with the Florida Press Association, the open records advisor in the Florida governor’s office and the legislative clerks in both houses of the Florida Legislature: No problems reported.

In Wisconsin last spring, state Rep. Louis Molepske Jr., D-Stevens Point, introduced a bill stipulating that once the draft of any bill is disclosed to someone outside the legislator’s “levy of authority,” the measure is subject to the Open Records Law. Late in the session, with much partisan wheeling and dealing to be done, Molepske’s bill didn’t make it to a hearing.

Undaunted, Molepske will push for the measure again in this session. “The current practice puts our citizens’ interests behind those of unaccountable lobbyists,” he said in re-introducing the bill for discussion and debate. “If our own citizens cannot participate in our legislative process because they cannot afford their own lobbyists, then something is inherently wrong with our system.”

Peter D. Fox is executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Your Right to Know is a column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated open meetings and open records.