Senate quickly passes public records bill, resolutions, confirms nominees on Wednesday

Democrats criticize the “do-nothing” calendar

By: - April 20, 2023 5:30 am

State Senate during a floor session on Jan. 17, 2023. The Senate met for its third floor session on April 19. Photo by Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner.

Senate lawmakers passed a bill that would undo a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling on public records cases, reconfirmed two of Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet officials and passed several resolutions during a Wednesday floor session.

SB 117, co-authored by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), would overturn a recent decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that increased barriers to holding state agencies accountable for delays in handing over public records.

The state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in July 2022 in the case Friends of Frame Park v. City of Waukesha that if an entity voluntarily releases records after being sued, the person who requested the records can be awarded attorneys’ fees only if a court issued a ruling. The ruling created uncertainty about whether requesters would be able to recover attorneys’ fees if records were released. Prior to the decision, requesters could be awarded attorneys’ fees if the release of the records was determined to have resulted from the lawsuit.

“A public records attorney’s work relies on having some degree of certainty that a defendant will pay their fees if they are found to have violated the public records law,” bill co-author Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said in earlier testimony about the bill. “Without this certainty, it could become significantly more expensive and difficult for requesters to seek recourse for public records law violations, to the detriment of transparency and government accountability in Wisconsin.”

The bill, which has bipartisan support, would reinstate the ability for courts to award attorneys’ fees if records are released after a lawsuit is filed but before a decision is issued. The bill goes next to the Assembly for consideration.

The Senate also passed a bill that would expand eligibility for producer-led watershed, lake and river protection grants and an Assembly bill that would increase penalties for reckless driving. 

Democrats criticized the floor calendar set by Republicans during a morning press conference, calling it a “do-nothing agenda” and looking to focus the conversation on their legislative priorities. 

“Time and time again, Wisconsinites have vocalized their support for strong public schools, clean drinking water, access to quality child care, a fair tax structure, safe communities free from gun violence, affordable health care and prescription drugs, and so much more,” said Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison).

Agard said Republicans are “running scared” following the results of Wisconsin’s recent Supreme Court election, in which liberal Judge Janet Protaciewitz beat conservative former Justice Dan Kelly by an 11-point margin, and are “choosing to do nothing.”

During the 30-minute session, lawmakers unanimously confirmed two of Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet level appointees and 25 other appointees to various state boards. The confirmations continue the trend of the Senate slowly confirming Evers’ nominations, following Republicans’ refusal to confirm his appointees throughout his first term. 

Peter Barca, first appointed in January 2019, was reconfirmed to serve as the Secretary of the Department of Revenue. Randy Romanski, first appointed in June 2020 and confirmed in September 2021, will continue to serve as the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The Senate passed a couple of Democratic-led resolutions including one to honor the life and legacy of the late former Gov. Tony Earl and one to congratulate the University of Wisconsin-Madison women’s hockey team on winning the 2023 NCAA Division I Women’s Hockey National Championship. 

A resolution recognizing April 22 as Earth Day — which was founded by U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson — did not make it to the Senate floor on Wednesday, despite passing the Assembly on Tuesday 

Sen. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton), who co-authored the Senate version of the resolution, noted that last week marked the 100th day of the legislative session, yet the Legislature hasn’t accomplished much. She used the resolution as one example of the Senate’s slow pace.

“States near and far have spent the first few months establishing wonderful bills that helped reproductive health care rights, adopting sensible gun reform and bringing Medicaid expansion dollars back home to their states,” Hesselbein said. “In Wisconsin, it is the strangest thing. It’s like we’re in the upside-down, a world that moves so slowly we cannot even do simple things like declare official days official, until that day is in the past. We’re going to be recognizing Earth Day after Mother’s Day. It doesn’t make sense.” 

A resolution proclaiming February as Black History Month and honoring several Black Wisconsinites finally passed both houses in mid-March.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.