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home : opinions : opinions August 19, 2017

3/3/2017 7:29:00 AM
Call your legislators to support transparency

A few weeks ago, Gov. Scott Walker launched a new attack on government transparency in Wisconsin, using his proposed state budget to try to eliminate requirements that most public notices be published in newspapers.

Rather, governments would be able to simply post proceedings on their own websites.

It's a terrible idea, and, besides that, not a proper one for the budget. While it is technically a fiscal item, eliminating that requirement will save the state only about $24,000 a year in a budget that totals $76 billion.

Since the governor loves to spend money - state government spending has risen during his tenure and it would rise by 4.2 percent more in this budget - we think the governor has another motive.

We think he doesn't like government transparency.

And now he is joined by a host of lawmakers, who have now introduced separate legislation to accomplish much the same thing if the budget turns out not to be the right vehicle. In the Assembly, already 32 of 99 lawmakers in that body have signed on to co-sponsor the legislation, and in the Senate, 10 senators have signed on to the bill there.

That's scary - but not surprising - that anti-transparency forces have gathered so many lawmakers so quickly.

It's largely a Republican attack. Of the 42 lawmakers, 36 are Republicans, only six are Democrats.

While Democrats are generally no friend to open government when they are in power, this list of lawmakers, along with the governor, reminds us that Republicans are driving the anti-transparency train right now. We should all take a moment to remember that it was Republicans who tried to repeal the entire open records law year before last.

It is all the more shocking because Republicans claim to be the party rooting for smaller government. But letting government operate behind closed doors only ensures bigger and more powerful government, while letting the public have access through transparency requirements is a surefire way to dilute bureaucratic power.

This idea to let government stop publishing notices and proceedings in newspapers is a particularly bad idea.

When people read the news, when they seek to find out what is going on in a community, they turn to their local newspapers. They read about local sports teams, they read about community and arts events, they read about civic and town happenings - who is retiring, who is starting a business.

And there they also read what their local governments - county boards, town boards, school boards - are up to. If there is a road the state wants to widen, that's where the community will find out about it. If a developer has plans for vacant acreage, that's where people will find out about it. If the county wants to build a new highway department, that's where people will find out about it.

And that's where they will learn about government meetings about all those plans, where they can attend and have input, either for or against.

The point is, people migrate to newspapers and their websites not because they are looking for something specific that they don't know exists but because they can find out what is generally going on around them, and within that body of information locate the specific things that interest them.

It's a tremendous grassroots force in our civic life. Whether in print or online, a newspaper is a civic center all its own. People go there because it is a central gathering place for information.

But that's not the case with government websites. There, it's mostly drab government stuff, and government stuff only, drab or not.

A lot of people get up in the morning, grab their coffee, and read the newspaper. Virtually no one goes to a government website.

A government website is the opposite of a newspaper and its website: People go to a government website only when they already know about something and want to find out more; it's not a place where they routinely check to see what government officials are up to.

And because they don't cover all the things newspapers cover - the rich diversity of community life, from toddlers and school kids to parents and grandparents - they will never attract a sizable audience.

That's why requiring the publication of public notices in those teeming places where people actually gather their news is essential. The golden rule of transparent government must be, Do no harm.

It's quite all right and even encouraged for government to expand its channels of information distribution, but when it constricts those channels, the public interest is being harmed.

Governments may complain about the cost of those notices, but, believe us, newspapers are not depending on public notices for revenues, and, as the state budget reveals, that cost is a drop in the bucket of most government budgets.

But stripping the public of a main avenue of its information about government will come at a high cost indeed to the public interest - and, as governments increasingly conduct business behind closed doors, taxpayers will feel the pinch ever more in their pocketbooks.

The governor's budget and the recently introduced Assembly and Senate bills ignore the advice of a legislative study committee that just this year concluded that such sweeping changes were at least premature.

Indeed, the members reached a consensus that the current requirements for print publication of legal notices and of the maintenance of the statewide public notice website should be retained.

That's because, while the news market has become more fragmented, no other news medium had adjusted to that fragmented market better than newspapers. The truth is, with technology, newspapers reach more people than they ever have.

How suspicious that the governor and so many lawmakers want to reduce the flow of information to that audience at the very time that audience is at a record high. It tells you exactly what government officials are thinking.

It's time to tell them what you are thinking. We urge every citizen to call their state senators, their Assembly representatives, and the governor's office and tell them to nix the governor's budget proposal on public notices, and to defeat AB70 and SB42.

Your right to know is at stake.

Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Article comment by: Lisa MaKarrall

Vern, that was exactly my point. He got back in again despite numerous issues he's had with screwing over the Northwoods for his own profit. Gutting open records on a holiday weekend so no one would notice was only one thing on a long list of his slimy deeds. You gave him a pass, so why do you want a list? You don't care if there's a R behind his name.

Posted: Monday, March 20, 2017
Article comment by: Richard Collins

It seems that Vern has always felt that "consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds."

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2017
Article comment by: Tim Behselich


So are you OK with Tiffany voting to gut open records or not? Mixed messages here....

Posted: Thursday, March 9, 2017
Article comment by: Vern Moore

Lisa, we did just have an election - and Senator Tiffany won!

Posted: Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Article comment by: Tim Behselich

How soon they forget.....

An apology sufficient for a vote such as this? What was hard to understand about the proposal? Either you support open government or you don't. An apology after the fact in this situation is a joke.

But still they vote for these guys.......

Posted: Sunday, March 5, 2017
Article comment by: Lisa MaKarrall

Vern, I remember you coming to Tom Tiffany's defense after I wrote a letter to the Editor stating he voted to gut open records. You said he apologized for that vote so that was good enough for you. Transparency and open records are not something you can apologize for voting against. You either believe in transparent government or you don't. Tom Tiffany does not and didn't we just have an election?

Posted: Sunday, March 5, 2017
Article comment by: Vern Moore

Gregg and Richard, please publish the names of the legislators against transparency. They need to be held accountable at the ballot box.

Posted: Saturday, March 4, 2017
Article comment by: Tim Behselich

Again I ask....

Didn't the LT endorse Boss Walker and his GOP toadies? And now these same "conservative" heroes are trying to close the door on transparency?

Huh. Imagine that.....

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