"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
- Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1933
This week we observe Sunshine Week (http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org/), a national initiative to open dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. In recognition of Sunshine Week and in honor of Wisconsin’s once proud history of transparency in government, I am reintroducing the Sunshine on the Caucuses Act, which would apply Wisconsin’s open meetings law to our own legislative partisan caucuses.
Currently, under the open meetings law, meetings of state and local governmental bodies must be preceded by public notice, must be held in places that are reasonably accessible to the public, and must be open to the public at all times. The open meetings law, however, includes an exception for partisan caucuses of members of the state Senate or state Assembly.
This loophole means that the majority of Wisconsin’s most important political decisions are made by legislators behind closed doors with no access to Wisconsin’s citizens. By the time legislation sees the light of day and is debated before the public, the majority party has already made up its mind that the proposed law will pass as is, without amendment, and without feedback from ordinary voters. This undemocratic process may serve legislators and special interests, but it makes a mockery of the democratic process.
I have introduced the Sunshine on the Caucuses Act both when my Democratic Party is in the majority, and when I have served in the legislative minority. Whichever political party happens to “benefit” from closed partisan caucuses at a given time, the people of Wisconsin always lose.
We have learned through court testimony on the photo ID bill that legislators were giving one reason for the law in public, but behind closed doors “in closed sessions” they were congratulating each other for how the bill will disenfranchise voters from voting. Regardless of how you feel about photo ID, most people would agree that the real reason for legislation should stand up to scrutiny in public.
The partisan, gerrymandered legislative maps adopted by Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans are another notable example of the real harm caused by closed partisan caucuses. These maps were adopted only after legislators sworn to do the people’s business signed secret non-disclosure oaths promising not to discuss the maps with their constituents. The Sunshine on the Caucuses Act would have made this clandestine political behavior impossible, and saved taxpayers millions of dollars spent by Republicans defending unconstitutional legislative maps in court. Under the Sunshine on the Caucuses Act, every Wisconsinite will have a voice on issues like redistricting, not just politicians and the wealthy private law firms they hire at taxpayer expense.
For decades, Wisconsin was once a proud leader in open government. This is a role our state should reclaim. The Legislature should stop exempting itself from the rules all local governments in Wisconsin must play by. Sunshine remains the best disinfectant, and Wisconsinites understand that more accountable government is better government.