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Evers still failing open government

Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 29, 2020

By CJ Szafir, Institute for Reforming Government 

Nearly 14 months ago, the Associated Press reported the Evers Administration was “evaluating how to better present “accurate information about public records to the public.” The promise to do better – or at least evaluate how to do better – was in response to criticism of Gov. Tony Evers not following former Gov. Scott Walker’s executive orders on open government. Unfortunately, since then, there has been little, if any, signs of progress. In fact just the opposite.  

That’s disappointing because open government is an essential fabric of our republic, necessary to build trust with the other branches of government, media, and public. 

Walker won a nonpartisan award for his open government policies. Evers’ predecessor crafted a number of good government reforms, including the creation of a website that makes it easier to show how responsive state agencies are to records requests from the public. This was a common-sense tool to evaluate state bureaucrats accountability to the public. 

Perplexingly, Evers has refused to follow the Walker sunshine policy. As reported by the Associated Press, “Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration scrapped a public website created under his Republican predecessor to track compliance on public records requests.” This was the finding of a report I coauthored (while at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty) that also concluded one in every three records requests to Evers had yet to be fulfilled. 

In other words, here’s how it started vs. how it’s going.   

Fourteen months later, unfortunately the report foreshadowed a number of problems the Evers Administration would have with good governance.  Consider that the governor has:

  Refused to turn over one day of emails, which was criticized by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, to Fox6. 

  Refused to turn over public records to State Rep, John Nygren, which culminated in a judge forcing Evers to release the documents. 

➢ Had his staff caught secretly recording a phone call between the governor and Republican leadership. 

  Blocked journalists at the MacIver Institute from public press briefings, resulting in a lawsuit by the Liberty Justice Center.

Taken together, these issues are a disturbing pivot to darkness, compared to the prior administration. It builds a level of distrust between the executive branch and the public – and Legislature. This was seen in the confusion of the COVID crisis and lack of specificity for government action. More recently, our friends at the MacIver Institute have been raising questions about the spending of federal COVID relief dollars by Evers. 

As the state prepares for a difficult budget debate in the winter, open government is critical to having an honest debate and keeping the public informed. The Evers administration can certainly be better. 

CJ Szafir @cjszafir is president of the Institute for Reforming Government, a think tank based in Madison, Wis. dedicated to advancing free market, limited government, and education reform policies. To sign up for updates on their work, please go here. 

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