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UPDATE: Senate scraps open records changes as Gov. Walker's office acknowledges involvement in writing them

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MADISON (WKOW) -- On the same day the Wisconsin Senate removed changes to the state's open records law from the 2015-17 budget, Governor Scott Walker's office confirmed his staff helped write the controversial changes.

"Legislative leaders let us know that they were interested in making changes to the open records law. In response, our staff provided input regarding these proposed changes," reads part of a statement sent out by Laurel Patrick, a spokesperson for Gov. Walker.
 
That acknowledgment came after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said that he, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and members of the Governor's staff all contributed to drafting the changes.

"Certainly the Speaker was involved, and the Governor's office," said Sen. Fitzgerald. "There was some stuff related to open records that they had issues with as well."

It was a proposal so unpopular that it set off a firestorm hours after the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) introduced it as part of the 999 budget motion last Thursday. Mainstream, liberal and conservative media groups immediately voiced strong opposition.

Less than 48 hours later, Gov. Walker, Sen. Fitzgerald and Speaker Vos put out a joint statement announcing the changes would be taken out of the budget.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 33-0 to remove the proposal.

"Because it's obviously very hot, it's a very, very difficult environment that we're debating this and discussing this in," Sen. Fitzgerald said on the Senate floor.

The changes were introduced as Gov. Walker finds himself embroiled in separate lawsuits filed by the Center for Media and Democracy and The Progressive, both of whom are requesting documents related to an earlier draft of the budget that would have changed the language of the Wisconsin Idea.

Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) has been sued in the past over refusing to release records to the conservative media group - The Maciver Institute. Sen. Erpenbach lost the suit after arguing certain records Maciver was seeking should be redacted for privacy reasons, but he says he never sought to change the law itself.

"The Governor needs this. He's being sued. He's standing behind a legal defense that doesn't exist in state statute and he took the language to deny an open records request and put that into the budget to try and make it law," said Sen. Erpenbach.

The Governor's office said over the weekend that the proposed changes would go to a study committee instead, something many feel should have happened at the start.

"It certainly would have been a different process," said Sen. Fitzgerald. "I don't know that the criticism would be any less, but certainly it would have had a different feel to it and maybe that would have made more sense. I don't know."

Sen. Fitzgerald said he doubts any changes to the open records law could pass now given the strong opposition.

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Wisconsin Senators unanimously vote to approve an amendment that would remove language changing the state's open records law. The changes, which weakened Wisconsin open records law, were added at the last minute by the Joint Finance Committee last week and prompted quick criticism.

Governor Scott Walker's office is now acknowledging staff from the office participated in the drafting of the open records changes. A spokesperson for the governor says staff provided input when the office was made aware legislative leaders wanted to make changes to the law.

Below is the full statement provided to 27 News by Laurel Patrick, Press Secretary for Governor Walker's office:

Legislative leaders let us know that they were interested in making changes to the open records law.  In response, our staff provided input regarding these proposed changes.

Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation.  This allows for robust debate with state agencies and public employees over the merit of policies and proposed initiatives as they are being formed, while ensuring materials related to final proposals, as well as information related to external stakeholders seeking to influence public policy, would remain fully transparent.

Our focus remains on ensuring open and accountable government and we encourage public debate and discussion of any potential future changes to the state's open records law.

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told 27 News Tuesday that he helped draft the controversial changes to the state's open records law along with Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and staffers from Gov. Scott Walker's (R-Wisconsin) office.

Those changes were included in the 999 motion passed by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) last Thursday, but prompted such a strong backlash from both the media and the public that they are expected to be removed from the state budget when the Senate votes on it Tuesday afternoon.

The overhaul of the rules would limit public access to communications within legislative offices, including those about how and why a bill is written.

Sen. Fitzgerald spoke very frankly about the fact that many people in the legislature and the Governor's office had been looking for a way to tweak open records law, but concluded there was no way to keep the changes based on the strong reaction against them.

Less than 48 hours after the provision was passed by JFC, Gov. Walker and legislative leaders put out a joint statement saying the language would be pulled from the budget.

Capitol Bureau Chief Greg Neumann will have more on this story on 27 News at 5 and 6.

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