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Thursday afternoon, the Governor of Wisconsin filed paperwork to run for President of the United States. Thursday night – late Thursday night — Wisconsin’s top Republicans inserted a political mass suicide pact into the final draft of the state budget. As the Joint Finance Committee met for the last time before sending the budget to the full legislature, someone slipped a provision into the last final draft that would drastically restrict the state’s open-records law. All drafts, notes, intra-governmental communications (basically everything before the final version of a bill) could be kept confidential, and legislators would have vast privileges to refuse to make their communications public. There actually seems to be a real case for tightening the law, but this was sheer madness with a whiff of Shakespearean tragedy.
If you were trying to look as though you had something to hide, this is what you would do.
The Right and Left exploded in fury and joined in an uncomfortably weird but determined alliance. Democratic legislators denounced the open-records provision and conservative organizations cheered them on. After four years wandering in Wisconsin’s political wilderness, Democrats found themselves perched on the moral high ground and making the most of it.Republicans ran away from it as fast as they could — including some who’d voted for it in committee. Yesterday afternoon, less than 48 hours after it was first introduced, Governor Walker’s office put out a statement from the state’s top political leaders saying the provisions would be removed from the budget.
Crisis averted – or not. We don’t know how much damage is really done, and we still don’t know whodunit.
Legislative text does not drop from the sky. The finance committee co-chairs added the provision but deny authorship; they say there were “multiple requests.” Democrats, of course, are convinced that Scott Walker wrote it personally. There’s little love lost between Walker and the press, and maybe he wouldn’t mind limiting the material they can dig through. Parts of the proposal are similar to arguments his administration has made in an ongoing lawsuit. They’re trying to withhold information about an abandoned idea to change the University of Wisconsin mission statement, which is potentially embarrassing, but almost certainly nothing to sink a presidential campaign.
Indeed, what would Walker be hiding? Thanks to the John Doe, thousands of his “secret” emails as county executive were first scoured by a Democratic DA and ultimately made public. Nothing there. It’s unbelievable that after that experience — knowing his enemies — he would let anything into the record so damaging as to risk this uproar to keep it secret. One of the smartest politicians in the country, trying to present himself as the one who can beat Hillary Clinton, would try this? On the day he filed papers, no less?
But he’s yet to deny it. He said they’ll talk about it today when he meets with legislators.
If it wasn’t Walker, it probably had to be legislative leadership. It seems certain the Wisconsin Senate majority leader and house speaker at least signed off on it; either of them could have put it in themselves, or for a colleague. The “legislative privilege” portion is, obviously, designed to protect legislators. They aren’t talking.
Of course, there are plenty of possibilities between. Nobody is saying they were told Walker wanted it; some are saying they were told he wouldn’t veto. Someone on JFC could have put it in and Walker could have seen it but not been fully briefed (understandable at this unofficial stage of the process but embarrassing when he’s taking heat for spending so much time out of state). He could have wanted some deliberative process privilege, a legitimate idea that exists elsewhere, and legislators ran further. Nobody knows.
The secret may not keep. Sometime soon, someone is going to throw someone else under the bus. Today will be an interesting day in Madison.