By The Associated Press

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. February 15, 2023.

Editorial: A step in the right direction

Wisconsin Republicans’ move to effectively render a recent state Supreme Court ruling moot is welcome news and should be embraced across party lines.

The move Tuesday begins the process of reversing one of the worst rulings by a state court in recent memory. In 2022 the state’s high court ruled 4-3 that penalties for defying Wisconsin open records laws could be ducked if the entity who illegally withheld items turned them over before a judge ruled on the case’s merits.

In effect, the move gave a green light to governments across Wisconsin to play games, hide information, and avoid proper sanctions. It was an unbelievably misguided and wrongheaded decision. We hope voters keep it in mind when selecting the next justices. A decision like this abrogates the court’s baseline responsibility to the people of our state, and should result in severe scrutiny.

State Rep. Todd Novak and Sen. Duey Stroebel moved this week to ask for cosponsors on a bill that would restore the ability of plaintiffs to seek recovery of attorney fees without a court having to find the case. It’s a clear, sensible move designed to ensure that the law is what guides the release of public information, not games played by officials.

Stroebel’s comments were particularly on point. The ruling, according to the senator, would embolden “taxpayer-funded entities who have shown a tendency for flouting public records requests.” There can be little question the ruling was an invitation to do just that.

The importance of public records to good governance is impossible to overstate. They were the subject of multiple requests during the late probe into the 2020 elections, and raised serious questions about the spending by Michael Gableman. The requests also undermined Gabelman’s essential credibility when he refused to turn over the records.

Republicans have used a similar approach to question Gov. Tony Evers’ handling of the parole and court systems. Those issues took center stage in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

The effect at local levels is, perhaps, even more critical. Legislative leadership and the parties they represent have the financial backing to carry out long-term legal battles for the records they want. That’s not the case for ordinary residents of Wisconsin, or even many of the companies that work within the state’s regulatory framework. It is and will always remain essential that such cases have the clout they need to keep a watchful eye on government.

Part of that clout is making sure that penalties exist for governmental bodies that would otherwise have little to fear from ignoring requests. And, since individual charges against officials for violations are vanishingly rare, financial risk is the primary tool available to compel reluctant bureaucrats to comply.

The Wisconsin Institute on Law and Liberty is certainly no nonpartisan body, but the institute’s statement on Tuesday was also pertinent. Lucas Vebber, speaking for the group, said “It is the government’s duty to respond to citizens efficiently and in a timely manner — this bill ensures accountability when government tries to avoid transparency.” Again, we find no cause to disagree.

The devil is, as ever, in the details and we haven’t had the opportunity to go through the proposal with a fine-tooth comb just yet. There may be some details that need revision. That’s true of virtually every proposal made in government.

But the basic goal of ensuring bad actors are not given free rein to trample on Wisconsin’s public access to information, records and officials, cannot be seriously called into question. Government is run by people and, as such, will always require guard rails.

Realigning Wisconsin law with clear intent, rather than with an erroneous, ill-considered ruling, is one of those guard rails. It’s part of the basic duties legislators should carry out. And, to that end, we’re very pleased to see legislators recognize that the post-ruling state of open records enforcement is unacceptable.

The attention to this critical issue is welcome, and we hope to see the Legislature find swift accommodation for the necessary changes.


Kenosha News. February 21, 2023.

Editorial: Ballot witness addresses shouldn’t be this hard

In our politically fractious state where Republicans and Democrats can’t agree that up is up or down is down, it’s dismaying, but not surprising to see the court fight over what constitutes a sufficient witness address on an election ballot envelope.

One fight, although there are a couple other lawsuits going on, is before Dane County Circuit Judge Nia Trammell who is expected to rule this month on whether election officials can accept absentee ballots missing parts of a witness address.

Wisconsin law says if the witness address is missing the ballot can’t be counted, but state law does not define what constitutes missing.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature argues that an address is “missing” if it doesn’t contain the witness’s street number, street name and municipality. That’s in line with guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission – although it hasn’t ruled on what constitutes a missing address – that says those three elements should be included.

But the lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin League of Women Voters asserts that only ballots completely missing an address, not just part of it, should not count.

The league argues that the lack of clarity means election clerks across the state are making different decisions about what constitutes an address and that could lead to ballots being tossed out in one place while being counted in another.

This is not an inconsequential issue.

Absentee ballot voting – and early voting – surged during the COVID-19 pandemic and remained high in last year’s midterm elections. And, according to a review by the Legislative Audit Bureau in 2021 that reviewed 15,000 absentee ballots from 29 municipalities, 1,022 ballot envelopes – about 7% — were missing parts of their witness addresses. (By comparison only 15 ballots or 0.1% had no witness address.)

If you apply that 7% error rate to the 815,000 absentee ballots cast in the 2020 midterms, that would mean about 57,000 ballots would have been nixed by election clerks for missing part of the witness address. The figure is probably closer to 40,000, since “absentee ballots” include in-person voting and those ballots are witnessed by election clerks.

That does not mean that those 40,000 ballots would necessarily be thrown in the trash heap. Election clerks who catch that part of the witness address is missing would make an attempt to contact the voter and have the ballot cured and then counted. Still, if an absentee ballot comes in just before Election Day, that might well mean the ballot would go uncounted.

It seems to us that part of the responsibility—no, most of the responsibility – for ensuring a ballot is counted belongs with the voters themselves. They’re the ones who are availing themselves of the convenience of voting from their own homes and not having to trek to the polls or endure long lines on Election Day. And the ballot envelopes themselves are hardly confusing – the ones we’ve seen are often marked in yellow highlighter with the spots that need the voter signature, the witness signature and the voter address.

If your vote is that precious, and we think it is, then you should spend a little precious time with it to make sure it’s right.

When Judge Trammel rules this month – and her ruling may not be the end of this fight – we hope she comes down on the side of common sense and rules that the requirement for an address on a witness ballot means exactly that – a number, a street and a municipality.

That would provide some clarity and consistency for voters and election clerks across the state.


Wisconsin State Journal. February 19, 2023.

Editorial: Plenty of room for agreement in state budget

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers wants to invest in schools.

The Republican-run Legislature yearns for a tax cut.

With state government sitting on a $7 billion surplus, both should be doable.

Just don’t blow it all, state leaders. Don’t return Wisconsin to the bad old days of chronic budget deficits and cuts. Keep the state’s finances solid so it can weather a potential downturn in the economy.

Gov. Tony Evers unveiled a $104 billion state budget last week for the two years beginning July 1. His 1,800-page document is a lot to digest. We look forward to seeing the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s sober analysis of his spending plan next month.

For now, here’s what we like, and what deserves bipartisan cooperation:

Evers’ top priority is public education. He’s proposing increases of $2.6 billion for K-12 schools, $306 million for universities and $66 million for technical colleges.

Those are big numbers, but they come with lots of room for negotiation. Republican lawmakers should grant a significant boost, given that schools are losing federal money for pandemic relief.

Taxpayers want more investment in public education. They’ve shown that again and again by approving school referendums across the state, and 63% of respondents in the latest Marquette Law School poll support greater state aid for classrooms.

Republicans should look for agreement, rather than dismissing the governor’s spending package out of hand.

A lifelong educator, the governor wants to improve reading scores with $25 million for literacy coaches. The need seems obvious: Just 37% of third- through eighth-grade students in Wisconsin are proficient or advanced in English and language arts. Republicans should grant the money if the governor agrees to proven strategies for teaching the ABCs.

Another item ripe for cooperation: UW-Madison needs a new College of Engineering building, which the governor has included in his budget request. The $356 million project, partially covered with $150 million in grants and gifts, will allow hundreds of additional students to graduate each year with skills Wisconsin employers are clamoring for.

The governor wants to enhance the earned income tax credit. Republicans have long favored the credit because it rewards low-income families for hard work. Just because a Democratic governor is proposing it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t pass.

Similarly, the governor wants to invest $150 million in affordable workforce housing.

The governor’s budget seeks $290 million for improvements to Milwaukee’s American Family Field. Evers says the money will ensure the Milwaukee Brewers stay in Wisconsin for another two decades.

Given that the state helped the Milwaukee Bucks build a new arena with bipartisan support — and the team subsequently won a championship — improvements for the Brewers seem fair. The team has an enormous impact on Wisconsin’s economy and quality of life, two causes the GOP espouses.

Not everything in the governor’s proposal is inviting. He wants to increase spending by 19% over two years. Though some of that hike is due to one-time expenses, such as the Brewers package, it’s still excessive.

One figure we don’t like from the Republicans is $5 billion. That’s what Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu’s proposal for a flat income tax would cost state government in lost revenue each year, starting in 2026. It would blow a gaping hole in the state’s healthy finances.

By comparison, the governor’s call for a tax cut targeting the middle class appears much more affordable and fair. We also like Evers’ pitch for adding $500 million to the state’s rainy day fund, and $380 million toward transportation debt.

Rather than ignoring the governor’s goals and inviting a slew of vetoes to their own spending plan, top Republicans should negotiate a budget most people in Wisconsin can support.