It has been a policy of the Walker Administration since 2011 that state-employed staffers only attend public hearings “for informational purposes when requested,” a gag order of sorts on state experts giving recommendations on policy issues.
Additionally, state bureaucrats in all departments have been forbidden by the administration to answer media questions or provide any comment without first contacting administration officials for permission and guidance.
These policies are disturbing to the newspaper industry, and they should be to every state resident. They violate the basic premise of open government and send a clear message of political manipulation on the free flow of factual information throughout state government, from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the Department of Revenue (DOR) and beyond.
There should only be one version or one answer to the questions of the media, and that’s the truth. So it makes no sense for the experts to get permission for the version they are going to share with the media, unless of course, it will be politically shaped to include certain truths while others are buried or left out entirely.
While we don’t want bureaucrats in charge of state government, we do rely on their vast education and collective expertise to help guide government policy and fact-based lawmaking. That’s why the gag order on staff recommendations regarding any kind of legislation is so disturbing and is so wrong.
What this policy allows Walker and Republican lawmakers to do is make important decisions in a vacuum. They don’t have to hear recommendations from state employees and they don’t have to vote for legislation that is contrary to the staffers, because nobody really knows where the experts stand. They aren’t allowed to give an opinion.
The gag order comes at a time when the Walker Administration is pushing job creation, permit streamlining and economic revival with little regard to environmental impacts. He has turned the single agency responsible for protecting our natural resources, the DNR, into a new department of commerce. Now they talk more about jobs and helping private industry than protecting resources.
Unfortunately, the permit streamlining and what some daily newspapers are calling an anti-science political agenda has come at the worst time in state history — a time when Wisconsin faces more environmental challenges than ever before. New reports and investigations show less environmental enforcement, a huge increase in high-capacity wells that can pump 100,000 gallons of groundwater a day, and growing concerns over algae-filled lakes, polluted wells and invasive species.
Any state government that is afraid of the truths its own state employees might speak, so much that they must gag them or coach them on the political correctness of their answers, is a government that needs more scrutiny.
How ironic that the party most likely to criticize today’s politically correct society would engage in its own policy of political intrusion and manipulation regarding the statements of state-employed professionals.
Behind the editorial ‘we’
Members of the Vilas County News-Review editorial board include Publisher Kurt Krueger, Editor Gary Ridderbusch and Assistant Editor Doug Etten.