POLITICAL AND GOVERNMENT ROUNDUP: Open records at the heart of a lawsuit against a Senate Republican
If a Wisconsin senator wins a lawsuit against her, it's possible that legislators may no longer have to provide public records from their offices. Senate Republican Leah Vukmir of Wauwatosa is trying to claim legislative immunity in a suit filed by the liberal Center for Media-and-Democracy. The group went to court to obtain records about her involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council. The conservative group writes model legislation for states to consider. This week, the state Justice Department filed a response claiming that Vukmir is exempt from being sued for violating the Open Records Law during the entire time she's in office. That would go against previous cases in which lawmakers from both parties faced their open records suits -- either by turning over documents in question, or fighting the cases individually in court. Plaintiffs' attorney Brendan Fischer says the state's response is quote, "pretty shocking." He says it's part of a legislator's duty to provide public records -- and to not do so undermines the public's trust in government. Vukmir is not commenting. Steve Means of the Justice Department says the Constitution is clear on legislative immunity, saying lawmakers are not subject to civil process actions during a legislative session. Vukmir claims those sessions run the entire time of lawmaker's tenure.
It's not certain whether the full state Assembly will get to vote on a package of tougher penalties for drunk drivers. An Assembly committee yesterday endorsed several bills proposed by Mequon Republican Jim Ott and Senate Republican Alberta Darling of River Hills. Corrections and court officials say it would cost tens-of-millions-of-dollars for the extra court time and prison space that would be needed. G-O-P Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has not given any indication that he supports the measures, or is willing to schedule them for a final vote. A spokeswoman says Vos is reviewing the package. Among other things, the bills would make three-and-four-time drunk driving a felony -- and impose a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for drunk drivers who kill someone, and at least six months for causing injuries. Authorities could seize drunk drivers' vehicles, and all offenders would have to appear in court at least once. Ott backed off yesterday on a bill that would make first-time O-W-I a criminal misdemeanor for those with blood alcohol levels almost twice the legal limit.
Governor Scott Walker says a new research center in Milwaukee could someday help the world obtain fresh water. Mayor Tom Barrett says it will foster Milwaukee's reputation as the fresh-water capital of the world. Walker and Barrett were among the speakers yesterday, when the new Global Water Center was opened. It has 25 businesses and university programs. One of them is Microbe Detectives, which uses D-N-A technology to root out bacteria in water. Another is Alga Bionics, which uses new techniques to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage. U-W Milwaukee and U-W Whitewater both have research facilities in the new water center.
A new task force will come up with ideas to help Wisconsin's rural schools improve and stay viable. State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos formed the new group. He has named Rhinelander Republican Rob Swearingen as its chairman. Vos wants the task force to look for ideas to help rural schools be more innovative and efficient. He also wants them to study ways to remain financially stable while handling declining enrollments, and dealing with transportation needs. The rest of the task force members will be named next week. The group will hold its first two meetings in Rhinelander and Merrill. Those dates have not been set. Vos wants the group to report on its recommendations by early next year.
First Lady Michelle Obama told Watertown High School students yesterday to ignore the critics, and drink more water so they can get healthier. Obama spoke to hundreds of students during a national kick-off to the "Drink Up" campaign, which encourages folks to drink at least one more glass of plain water each day. Wearing Watertown High School purple-and-white, the First Lady said lots of people don't think water is a big deal -- but she calls it the single best thing we can do to get ourselves and our families healthier. The beverage industry supports the initiative, and that triggered criticism on a couple of fronts. New York University food scientist Marion Nestle called the campaign "a partnership with soda companies to promote their bottled waters." Marquette associate professor SuJean Choi says the campaign ignores concerns about plastic bottles ending up in landfills -- but otherwise, he called the campaign a "safe" message that's harmless to people's health. Emily Wurth of the Food-and-Water Watch environmental group said Obama should encourage people to drink more tap water. The First Lady did give a shout-out to the natural stuff, noting that Watertown was judged as the best-tasting tap water in Wisconsin. That was back in 2010.