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Opinion Archives for 2019-01


As Door/Kewaunee Legislative Days sponsors have gone public with their contrived and limiting survey, requesting issue ideas to bring to our state legislators, these pseudo inclusive efforts fail miserably in encouraging unfettered participation by all our area citizens as “stakeholders,” in the legislative process of influencing state “leadership.” 


Having taken the time to directly communicate to the Executive Directors of both Door and Kewaunee County’s Economic Development Corporations (D/KEDCs) with a couple simple suggestions for being more inclusive and less controlling over the issues allowed for April’s supposed community wide legislative lobbying efforts; I’ve not received one written word in response to my suggestions.


I’ve criticized the three applied pre-conditions of conformity for any issues suggested to be deemed worthy of lobbying efforts.  I’ve asked what issue isn’t potentially a state-wide or national issue and what issue can’t be argued as being controversial by someone and lastly, if we’re bringing any issue to Madison, it’s a forgone conclusion that we’ve not been able to resolve it locally.


Addressing youth disenfranchisement, I’ve directly suggested to most of our area school superintendents and to both our county government sponsors of the D/KEDCs that using our young adults to lobby for efforts dictated to them by political and/or by corporate economic interests is nothing but a public relations gimmick to bolster the community image of our D/KEDCs.  To disingenuously recruit our youth to lobby under contrived, controlled and dictatorial conditions is usury, short-sighted and unconscionable. 


As supposed “adult,” community leaders, frequently lamenting how difficult it is to keep our young adults interested in remaining in the area for the (readily debatable) good job opportunities locally, perhaps we should instead be encouraging our youth to be discussing, selecting and voicing their own critical issues during this lobbying opportunity instead of dictating to them, the terms and talking points for their participation.  


Looming student debt for post-secondary education, global warming, universal health care, fair wages, open government, decriminalizing cannabis use or ending racial oppression are issues that our young adults might want to have the opportunity to champion.  Respecting these young people, their opinions, abilities and ideas is the logical first step to engendering constructive future community involvement, loyalty and civic engagement. 


As “adults,” let’s not waste this golden opportunity for deliberate and honest inclusion of our youth, their ideas and future vision, through our own continued ignorance or arrogance, or the apparent official economic development and local government sanctioning of unquestionable irresponsibility and social detriment currently defining the terms and conditions promoting D/K Legislative Days.


Democracy depends on open government

They say what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but when it comes to public records, the state Legislature doesn’t seem to believe in this principle. 

In Wisconsin, cities, police and fire departments, state agencies, and even the governor’s office are required to retain public records and make these available to the public. For example, emails generated by staff in the Department of Justice must be retained for three years from the date of creation and then transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society or UW-Madison archives. For most of our state’s history, these rules also applied to those who wrote the laws. 

But decades ago, when it wrote the law, the Legislature decided to exempt itself from having to retain most records. This exemption means the state’s 99 representatives and 33 senators can simply destroy or delete records in their possession that they would like to shield from public scrutiny. 

This quirk in the law has been used by some legislators to protect constituents’ personal information, and by others to hide their communications with corporate interest groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. And I know that some of my colleagues in the Senate make it a point to delete their calendars daily.


For a state with a rich history of transparency and with technological advancement, this double standard is no longer acceptable. State lawmakers should have to comply with the same record-keeping standard they require for others.  


Unfortunately, we have seen transparency slide in the opposite direction in recent years. In 2015, Republican lawmakers passed a budget “999 motion” to limit what records they needed to provide. It was removed from the budget only after public outcry. The Legislature has also limited what the public can know about campaign contributors. 

I believe, as I recently told a Milwaukee TV station, that the ability of lawmakers to destroy records is an invitation to corruption, Already, we have seen that some lawmakers have been destroying the emails they received urging them to vote against the package of lame-duck bills they passed in December.

Our public tax dollars pay for all of the functions the lawmakers perform. The public has a right to see records that show who is exerting influence over these allocations.


The fix is easy. We can simply pass a law to delete the legislative exemption to record keeping and bring the state Legislature in line with the Public Records Management and Preservation Program.     

This coming legislative session, I will reintroduce a bill I co-authored in 2011 with former state Senators Tim Cullen and Jim Holperin to do away with this outdated exemption. When this bill was last introduced, legislative Republicans refused to even give it a public hearing. 

Unfortunately, those in power rarely give it up willingly. What’s needed is a loud and unified public demanding that lawmakers’ records be kept safe and available upon request. 

There’s a saying that sums all this up nicely: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” There should not be 132 standards for record keeping in the Wisconsin Legislature; there should be only one standard of transparency.


Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a group dedicated to open government. Wisconsin state Senator Chris Larson represents Wisconsin’s 7th Senate District and is the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Education.

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