Wis. legislator nixes UW record exemptions

Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol (file photo)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The head of the state Assembly’s colleges committee said Monday he won’t allow the panel to vote on a bill that would largely keep University of Wisconsin System research activities secret, defusing a looming fight between the system and open government advocates.

Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, introduced a bill last week that would exempt all materials tied to any commercial, scientific or technical research from the state’s open records law before the research is published.

UW officials say the measure is designed to protect research from competitors. Open records advocates counter that the law already exempts draft research documents and information that would reveal trade secrets. They also contend the law allows universities to keep records secret if officials feel the harm from releasing them outweighs the presumption of public access.

“Wow,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, wrote in an email to Wisconsin media outlets, open records attorneys alerting them to the bill. “I am asking that we take this seriously and respond with the indignation it deserves.”

The Assembly colleges committee included the bill among several set for a public hearing Monday. But the committee’s chairman, Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, announced before the proceedings began that he would not allow the committee to vote on Kuglitsch’s bill as long as the broad exemptions remained.

He distributed a statement at the hearing saying he had spoken with Kuglitsch and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, and the provisions will be removed from the bill. He told people in the audience at the outset of the hearing that speaking about the exemptions would serve little purpose.

“I believe strongly in the importance of the Wisconsin Open Records Law in providing the public with the ability to know what government is doing in this state,” Nass said in the statement. “This law is also a fundamentally important tool for the Legislature in carrying out its constitutional duty of oversight.”

Kuglitsch said in a telephone interview he believes the bill does go too far.

“The intent was to protect the proprietary nature of the research,” he said. “But as (Nass) and my office looked into it, it was just too broad. … We just figured we didn’t want to create any unintended consequences, so we dropped this portion of the bill.”

UW-Madison lobbyist Don Nelson said outside the hearing that the research materials eventually would become public during the patent process and UW attorneys believe the bill’s exemptions apply only to research data.

“It clearly needs more discussion,” Nelson said.

The bill also sets up a process for UW institutions to accept government contracts to perform classified research for national security purposes. Students’ educational needs would have to be protected and the schools would have to make an annual report to the Legislature’s budget committee on how many classified contracts were considered.

Right now UW System and UW-Madison policies prohibit researchers from undertaking work on campus that can’t be published, which prevents them from engaging in classified work. Some UW scientists, however, do perform classified work for non-system entities, however.

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