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Scott Walker, Wisconsin Republicans back off on open records law restrictions

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After two days of harsh criticism, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leaders in the Legislature said Saturday they are abandoning a provision that would have dramatically restricted public access to government records in the state.

Walker and top leaders in the Assembly and Senate - including the chairs of the budget-writing committee that slipped the measure into the state budget bill with no fanfare late Thursday night - made the announcement Saturday afternoon, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

"We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government," the statement said. "The intended policy goal of these changes was to provide a reasonable solution to protect constituents' privacy and to encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff in developing policy. It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way."

But its many critics said the provision would have "gutted" Wisconsin's open records law. Nearly all records created by state and local government officials would have remained secret, including drafts of legislation and staff communications, the Associated Press reports.

The proposal was denounced by liberals and conservatives alike - lawmakers as well as interest groups - and media outlets in Wisconsin also expressed outrage.

The author of Wisconsin's open records law, former Democratic lawmaker and current federal judge Lynn Adelman, called the proposal a "devastating assault on open government in Wisconsin," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The newspaper notes that Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, also spoke out against the changes.

"Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the Budget Bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction," he said in a statement.

The Journal Sentinel, the state's largest newspaper, published an editorial on its front page Saturday titled A declaration of secrecy that runs counter to American values.

"I'm glad they're taking it out," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, according to the State Journal. "But just the fact that they even tried to do this in the first place should bother everybody in this state."

Republican leaders have refused to say who initially sought the changes or why, and it's not clear what, if any, role Gov. Walker played in the planning, the Journal Sentinel reports.

But Erpenbach said he believes Walker was directly involved. He said to the State Journal he was told by Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee that Walker had "signed off" on the changes and told them he would not veto it.

"There is not any governor who doesn't know what ends up in the budget before it gets to his desk," he said. "It did come from the governor, in my opinion, and a couple of legislators who obviously have something to hide."

Walker's proposal earlier this year to change the University of Wisconsin's mission statement and eliminate the "Wisconsin Idea" from his state budget proposal came to light through an open records request. After it was made public, public opposition forced him to withdraw that language, the Journal Sentinel notes.

The issue became another distraction for Walker just a week before he formally announces his plans to run for president.

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