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Editorial Roundup: Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

December 16, 2019 GMT

Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Dec. 8

Stop playing games with public records

Gov. Tony Evers has now released one day of his emails, having previously denied a similar request.

Good. Keep going, governor. Fully embrace open government, regardless of who is asking for public documents. Our state definitely needs more leadership when it comes to promoting transparency for taxpayers.

In just the last few weeks, the public has learned that Assembly Republican lawmakers wasted $26,500 of state money on lawyers, trying unsuccessfully to deny a request for digital copies of their communications. This is the same GOP-run Legislature that tried to gut the open records law, and has granted itself special permission to delete records and meet in secret.

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At the local level, the Madison School District has denied or ignored two dozen requests for public documents from a city resident. The anonymous person sued last month, meaning local property taxpayers could be on the hook for legal expenses if school officials continue to resist compliance.

With few exceptions, Wisconsin’s open records law allows people to request public documents without identifying themselves. That way, requesters don’t have to fear government reprisals.

Some of the items the unnamed person is requesting are as straightforward as “weekly updates” for School Board members, and school improvement plans. Such information is clearly of public interest and doesn’t pose a safety threat. The district should hand over the documents.

Gov. Evers should lead by example so lower-level public servants are more likely to respect the people’s right to know what their government is doing — and so tedious court fights don’t waste public money.

The Democratic governor said he would bring greater respect to transparency laws as a candidate last year. Evers pledged to “prohibit agencies from withholding documents from independent review,” and faulted Republicans for “expansive, arbitrary” nondisclosure agreements. Evers blamed then-Gov. Scott Walker’s administration for undermining the “state’s rich tradition of transparency and accountability.”

Now Evers’ staff has oddly been citing Walker’s practices as justification for its refusal to release certain records. It has noted that former Gov. Walker refused to provide documents to people who failed to identify a topic or specific key words they were looking for in government emails.

But those requests were much broader than the simple ones Evers has resisted. And why would Evers make Walker the standard for compliance with open government laws? Evers promised to be much better than his predecessor at allowing citizens access to public information.

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When Evers’ office finally released a single day of his emails last week — this time to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, having previously denied a similar request from WITI-TV (Ch. 6) — it did so with a troubling caveat. It said it was making an exception in releasing the handful of emails, meaning his office wants to reserve the right to deny similar requests in the future. And Evers still hasn’t fulfilled WITI-TV’s simple request.

That’s not a strong example of openness. It’s a sneaky dodge of his office’s responsibilities.

Instead of moving backward or standing still on open government, Evers should lead Wisconsin forward.

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The Capital Times, Madison, Dec. 11

There is nothing indecent about supporting impeachment

Back in 1973, when Madison Mayor Bill Dyke was running for a third term, he faced a 27-year-old alderman named Paul Soglin, a longtime student activist who had made his name as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and an equally outspoken advocate for economic and social and racial justice. Dyke attacked his challenger as a dangerous radical and speculated about whether there might be “enough decent people left in Madison so that I’m re-elected.”

It turned out that there WERE enough decent people left in Madison to elect Soglin. He swept to victory by a 53% to 47% margin and went on to become the city’s longest-serving mayor.

Now, state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, is opposing the impeachment of President Trump and claiming, “Good and decent people will rise and resist these vile efforts to effectuate a political coup of the president.”

Just as Dyke got it wrong in 1973, so Nass has it wrong now. Way wrong.

There is nothing indecent about proposing to impeach a president who stands accused of abusing his authority in order to benefit himself personally and politically.

Of course, Americans can — and will —_disagree on whether it is appropriate, and timely, to impeach and remove this president. But it is absurd to suggest that a stance in support of Trump is decent while opposition to his wrongdoing is somehow indecent.

What is even more absurd is the senator’s suggestion that “individuals, organizations and allies of those responsible (for Trump’s impeachment) must be held to account.” Nass added, “That accountability must occur at the local, state and national levels.”

Seriously?

Citizens who exercise their constitutional right — and responsibility — to speak truth to power do not need to be held to account. They need to be celebrated. The same goes for members of Congress who assert their right — and responsibility — to check and balance a president who has abused his position.

When Nass suggests otherwise, he assaults the basic premises of the American experiment, as they were outlined in the constitution that was drafted in 1787, and as they were highlighted in the amendments that formed the Bill of Rights.

The notion that citizens should be “held to account” for disagreeing with Donald Trump, or with Steve Nass, sounds to us like reckless demagoguery.

Nass has always been a bombastic figure in Wisconsin politics. But when the senator starts suggesting it is indecent for Wisconsinites to support the impeachment of a president who stands accused of trying to get a foreign government to investigate a political rival and then refusing to cooperate with congressional investigations into his abuse of power, he goes too far. And when a powerful legislator announces that those who disagree with him should be “held to account,” it is appropriate to object.

That objection should come from all quarters — from those who support impeachment AND from those who oppose it. Respect for the Constitution, and for the right of citizens and legislators to embrace the impeachment power that is contained within it, should go beyond partisanship and ideology.

Wisconsinites should ask Nass what, exactly, he means when he suggests that supporters of impeachment are indecent. More importantly, they should ask how he would propose to hold them to account.

And let’s be clear, there are a lot of them.

Several recent polls have suggested that a majority of Americans support the impeachment and removal of Trump. Some polls have it closer, suggesting that the United States is evenly divided on the question.

Does Nass think that half of Americans are indecent? Does he think a majority of Americans need to be “held to account”? Where does he draw the line? Does he think that the 80% to 90% of Democrats who support the president’s impeachment and removal are indecent? Does he think that the roughly 45% to 50% of independents who support the president’s impeachment and removal are indecent? Does he think that the 10% of Republicans who support the president’s impeachment and removal (according to the latest CNN poll) are indecent?

Does Nass really think that all of these millions of Americans are somehow indecent and should be held to account? Does he really think that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites are somehow indecent and should be held to account? Does he really think that thousands of his own constituents are somehow indecent and should be held to account?

If this is where Steve Nass stands, so be it. That is his right.

But it is the right of Wisconsinites to reject his definition of indecency — and his reckless demagoguery — just as resoundingly as they did Bill Dyke’s.

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Beloit Daily News, Dec. 16

Want reform? Empower people

Party in power will always swat away change if it smells like a threat.

Beloit state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, along with Sen. Mark Miller, wants Wisconsin to switch to what is called ranked-choice voting — sometimes called Instant Runoff Voting.

Basically, it works this way. Rather than picking candidate A or B in a given election, the voter expresses ranked preferences — first choice, second choice, sometimes more. When votes are tallied the idea is to reach a winner able to command a majority by moving through various phases of ranked choices until that happens.

It’s not necessarily as complicated as it sounds, but some worry change could create a certain level of confusion and perhaps adversely impact turnout.

There are both pros and cons to these systems, which have been used elsewhere without serious problems.

But let’s look beneath the surface.

Two Democrats are advocating for the reform. As with previous major electoral initiatives — gerrymandering reform, voter ID and others — one party seems to push for it while the other steadfastly opposes. Odds are very high the same fate awaits ranked-choice voting, which seems unlikely even to get a hearing in the legislature where Spreitzer, Miller and their Democrat colleagues are the minority.

Let’s be fair, by the way, to the Republican majority. Democrats could have made this and other changes a few years ago when both houses of the legislature and the governor were controlled by them. They did not. Why? The same reason Republicans are just fine with the way things are today.

It’s working for them.

It’s not a coincidence that political parties seem to discover the joys of reform only when they are on the outside looking in at the halls of power. When the status quo is working in their favor, reform is a dirty word.

Do we believe ranked-choice voting deserves serious debate and consideration? Sure. Even though it won’t get it.

But, moreover, the ideological logjam is why we have concluded the only reform that really would matter is adding Wisconsin to the list of states that have citizen initiative and referendum. That’s the process which allows citizens to pose a binding referendum question, gather sufficient signatures to force it onto a statewide ballot, with an outcome politicians must accept. It would take a constitutional change but few, we believe, can question the obvious: Expecting politicians to get tough reforms done — the kind that might endanger themselves or their majority — is hoping for what never was and what never will be. The political class takes care of itself, first.

On that, if nothing else, there’s bipartisan agreement.

Just imagine, though. If citizens could force binding ballot questions they might choose ranked-choice voting. Or prohibiting partisan gerrymandering in favor of nonpartisan redistricting. Or — the Holy Grail — term limits.

That’s real reform.