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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, September 12, 2005

Wisconsin State Sen. Zien needs a smack with the clue stick

(Remember that the clue stick is metaphorical, Mr. Capitol Policeman.)

Think back to all those episodes of "Law and Order" you've seen. C'mon, the show is on for 751 hours every week; you must have seen at least one, right? The issue of attorney-client privilege (or doctor-patient, priest-penitent, you get the idea) comes up pretty often. When you're on TV for 751 hours a week, you recycle a lot of plots.

What's the one thing we all know about attorney-client privilege? That's right--if you should happen to confess to your attorney while someone else is in the room, you've voluntarily waived that privilege. Once the cat is out of the bag in front of the public, you're fair game.

Something like that is happening right now in Madison. State Sen. Dave Zien (R-Naboo) and Rep. Scott Gunderson (R-Waterford) are planning to introduce Concealed Carry v2.0. As they were perfecting their new version of the bill, they sought help from the gun lobyists who know best--the National Rifle Association. (You can get much of the backstory here.)

So here's the question: Should the drafts of the legislation partially written (or at least guided) by the NRA enjoy the same protection as bills not shown to outsiders? In other words, does the presence of the NRA in the bill-writing process void the "privilege" as happens in our "Law and Order" example?

Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager wondered the same thing, and asked to see the drafts, to see how much the NRA really did contribute to the writing of the bill. When she asked, Zien and Gunderson basically said, "Thptptptpbt," and refused to turn over drafts of the bill. So Peg, with no additional tools at her disposal, sued:
"If she prevails, this institution would be turned upside down," said state Sen. Dave Zien. "It will be disastrous." [. . .] If Lautenschlager wins, lawmakers may start withholding bill drafts from lobbyists--a move that would create far more work for legislators because lobbyists commonly help write bills.

In cases where they continued to share bills, a victory by the state would mean people opposed to any number of controversial ideas would have a chance to peek at legislation before it is introduced.

"It takes a long time to do a draft, and if the public saw every little change, they would want more changes," Zien said. "The process would be so bizarre, so complex, so mixed up . . . It would be like having a public hearing every day."
Really, Senator? Which would be the "disaster": letting the public in on bills written by our elected officials, or keeping lobbyist-interests out? Smack.

State Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit) raised a more sensible concern: "If bills are made public before errors are fixed, she said, 'people may accuse you of wanting something in law that wasn't your intent at all.' " But Judy should let this one go. After all, she wrote one of my favorite essays archived over there at the Fighting Bob, a piece called "Legislation by Stopwatch":
My fellow Senate Democrats and I are fighting for transparency in the Wisconsin Legislature. "Transparency" describes the openness of institutions--the degree to which outsiders such as citizens or stockholders can monitor and evaluate the actions of insiders such as government officials or corporate managers.

Average citizens may find it impossible to know what goes on in the Legislature unless they hire their own personal lobbyists to track the issues that concern them. [. . .] This troubling practice is on the rise in the Legislature--rushing bill drafts to public hearing before they have been formally introduced. Until they are introduced in a house of the Legislature, bill drafts traditionally are for legislators' eyes only. They are not posted on the Legislature's Web site or other public access points. A citizen has no way to know what the bill says, unless he or she has an inside connection to the bill's author. [. . .]

Another troubling practice is to vote bills out of committee by ballot, away from the committee table, rather than in the full light of public scrutiny. Far too many chairs of committees are taking votes on important legislation in secret by what is known in the Capitol as "paper ballot."

Legislators have a duty to debate the merits of legislation in the full light of day. We should be required to justify our reasons for passing bills and to defend our reasons for opposing them. [. . .]

Republican leaders cite "efficiency" as the reason for these practices. They say they want to make government more efficient. Speeding up the process may be a virtue when it comes to making toothpaste, but when it comes to making public policy speeding up the process tends to shut people out.

As the Senate Democratic leader, I refuse to agree to legislate by stopwatch.
So here's your chance, Judy--and everyone else who feels that it is the duty of our public officials to make the writing of public policy as public as possible. Support Peg's lawsuit. Let's see the sausagemaking. Let's get pens away from the special-interest lobbyists.

Wisconsin can be a leader in clean, transparent government again. Go, Peg!

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