Our Views: Vukmir, Van Hollen seek to subvert open government in Wisconsin

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

If state Sen. Leah Vukmir prevails in the latest assault on our state's open records law, it would be huge blow to Wisconsin's tradition of open government.

The Wauwatosa Republican is essentially claiming that being a state lawmaker makes her immune from the records law. The liberal Center for Media and Democracy has sued Vukmir. It argues she violated the law by not turning over all records related to her involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council. Liberals contend that ALEC, which is financed by corporations, is behind many conservative measures and even writes bills proposed in state legislatures.

If successful, a motion Vukmir filed in Dane County Court would let all lawmakers ignore the open records law. It's also disturbing that Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's Department of Justice filed the motion on her behalf. This move smells of partisanship when Van Hollen refused to help Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach after the conservative MacIver Institute sued the Middleton Democrat, seeking emails from his constituents. Erpenbach had to hire a private attorney, and taxpayers have spent a reported $140,000 on his legal counsel in a case now before an appeals court.

Van Hollen claims the open records law does apply to legislators, that the two cases are different and that while Vukmir complied with the records request, Erpenbach did not because he redacted names of constituents.

If Vukmir did comply fully, why is she being sued?

Van Hollen also argues he's only doing his duty by upholding the state constitution. That's because a state constitutional provision dating to 1848 grants lawmakers immunity from any civil process while they're in session.

Back then, however, sessions lasted weeks or a few months. Now, despite frequent recesses, legislative sessions run two years. In other words, Vukmir's motion argues, the session lasts the entire term of a state representative. We don't believe that was ever the intent of that constitutional provision.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council said it is “shocked and saddened” that Vukmir, with the help of Van Hollen's office, is claiming immunity from the law.

“Our state's openness laws are fundamental to its ability to function as a democracy,” the council said in a news release. “Members of the Legislature, which passed these laws, ought to respect that. We call upon Sen. Vukmir to reconsider her position in light of the damage it could cause to the state.”

The council listed Erpenbach's and seven other cases in which lawmakers have been sued for violating the records law. Sometimes lawmakers lost; sometimes they settled, and sometimes they won. But never before did they claim to be above the law.

While Van Hollen claims a duty to uphold the state constitution, it's also his duty to uphold an open records law that has served us well for decades. It keeps government transparent and roots out possible corruption. Complying shouldn't be an option for lawmakers, as Van Hollen and Vukmir suggest, but yet this motion would allow that.

Granted, Vukmir has served as ALEC's state chairwoman and is the group's national treasurer, and she might be embarrassed if records show just how cozy she has gotten with ALEC. We don't expect her to do the right thing and drop her motion. But she should.

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