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Our view: Openness applies to lawmakers, too

Our view: Openness applies to lawmakers, too

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J.B. Van Hollen

Republican J.B. Van Hollen is Wisconsin’s attorney general.

Should Wisconsin legislators have complete immunity to lawsuits while they are in office and perhaps beyond?

That’s the assertion that State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, makes in a legal argument to an open-records lawsuit with support from Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

If that ridiculous assertion is legally upheld, we might as well hang a sold sign on the front door of the Capitol because we will have lost the war to special interests.

A lawsuit filed by the liberal Center for Media and Democracy contends that Vukmir has violated state open-records law because she has not turned over records concerning her involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a conservative group that works with legislators around the country with plug-and-play legislation that can be introduced in any state.

Although Wisconsin Republican leaders downplay the influence of ALEC, one needs only look at key legislative bills passed since 2011 that are directly from the ALEC playbook, including tort reform, telecommunications deregulation, voter identification, school vouchers and others. Vukmir has been an ALEC state chairwoman whose job is to push ALEC bills, and she is the group’s national treasurer.

Other legislators who have been sued by the Center for Media and Democracy have either turned over documents, admitted they violated the open-records law or continue to fight.

Wisconsin’s constitution says lawmakers are not subject to being sued during the legislative session. That’s an important protection to allow our legislators to work independently and without threats of intervention.

But Vukmir — through a motion filed on her behalf by Van Hollen’s office — contends that the legislation session lasts the entire term or perhaps even beyond that.

So, in other words, the public is not entitled to ever know, at any time, who has contacted their legislators, what documents they have received and who has their ear. That goes against the very principles of transparency and open government and would open wide the door to corruption.

Each year, Van Hollen holds public records and open-meetings law sessions around the state to help inform local government officials and others about the state’s laws. It’s disappointing he thinks state legislators are apparently above the laws with which everyone else must comply.


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