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By Dave Umhoefer April 22, 2012

Kathleen Falk says Gov. Scott Walker signed bills affecting women in secret

In the world of politics, it’s known as "the Friday dump" -- the tradition of officials delivering bad news (usually as it relates to themselves) at week’s end or before a holiday. The idea is to ensure light media coverage.

Democrats and liberal interest groups accused Republican Gov. Scott Walker of an all-time classic dump on Good Friday, when Walker’s office announced by news release he had signed four bills they had labeled as part of a "war on women."

What’s more, they said he concealed the fact they were signed.

In an April 6, 2012, news release, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk challenged Walker to "explain to the people of Wisconsin why in secret, he allowed legislation that will restrict women’s access to health care and equal pay and will end age-appropriate sex education for students to become law."

She added that Walker had "violated the trust of the people."


Can a bill signing announced by news release really constitute "a secret"?

The four bills at issue prevent people subjected to employment discrimination from seeking damages in state court; reverse a 2010 ban on abstinence-only sex education courses; create new requirements for getting medical advice before abortions; and prohibit insurance plans offered in Wisconsin under the federal health care reform law from covering some abortions.

Democrats say they are part of a broader GOP "war on women." Republicans said the bills protect women and reverses ill-advised legislation passed when Democrats had control.

But what about the signed-in-secret part?

The bills, of course, were argued and approved in public. And once signed into law, they ultimately are published. So from that perspective no bill signings are secret.

Sometimes, bills are signed in elaborate ceremonies in front of TV cameras that are announced in advance. Most bills, though, are signed quietly by the governor and announced via news release.

Let’s look at this case more closely.

Walker faced a legal deadline, based on when the bills passed, to sign or reject the four bills. That deadline was Thursday, April 5, 2012.

That day, the Journal Sentinel’s Capitol bureau reporters -- and other media members -- asked Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie if the bills had been signed. He declined to directly say.

To back up her statement, Falk’s campaign alleged there had been a one-day gap between when Walker signed the bills and his office’s April 6, 2012 announcement, which listed the four among 51 bills that had been signed.
We checked legislative records, and they listed the bills being signed on Thursday (most of the others were signed on Friday).

In addition to April 6, 2012 being Good Friday, it was opening day for the Milwaukee Brewers -- a "Friday dump" bonus.

The news release, issued at about 12:30 p.m. -- a couple hours before the first pitch at Miller Park -- offered no comments about any of the bills. It was the first time Democratic lawmakers, who are copied on the releases, were notified they had been signed.

So, Democratic lawmakers -- and the public -- were not notified in a timely fashion about the four bills in question.

What’s more, the release said Walker "signed bills into law today" (italics ours).

So, the public notice itself was misleading on when they were signed.

We asked Werwie precisely when and where the four bills were signed. He would only say that it was not "the dark of night" as critics alleged, and that Walker didn’t sign them in his office because "he didn’t have time."

On that same day, Walker signed two job-creation bills at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee. This underlines a point about bill signings and announcements: In the same manner politicians call attention to popular measures with public signings (for political advantage), they can downplay controversial ones by skipping one (also seeking political advantage).

In the end, it all becomes public. The secretary of state gets the bills within 24 hours of a signing, and publishes them.

To find out more, we called the sponsors of the four bills.

They told us there was a private signing ceremony -- on Thursday, April 5, 2012, at the governor’s Milwaukee office. The Republican sponsors were invited to attend, according to Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) and an aide to Rep. Michelle Litjens (R-Oshkosh)  though neither of those officials could make it.

Some additional information:

The general timing of Walker’s move was influenced by the Legislature’s actions. The bills in question were not sent to Walker until March 29, 2012. The state constitution gives Walker six working days to sign or veto.

So the timing with Easter Week was determined by lawmakers, while the specific day that week was Walker’s call.

A big-batch signing itself is not unusual, especially in the rush at the end of a legislative session. Earlier that week, Walker issued a similar news release announcing 36 bill signings.

Our conclusion

Echoing others, Falk took Walker to task for signing the four bills "in secret."

Falk’s words suggest at the very least a highly unusual effort to conceal an  official action. And the record reflects that. It’s clear to us that Walker cloaked the signing from reporters, and delayed his announcement to the public and Democratic lawmakers.

But although Walker sought to quietly approve these bills -- that’s his prerogative. The timing was only partially in his control, and it’s not unusual to sign big batches of bills out of direct public view, for practical reasons or political ones.

We think it’s a stretch to call it "secret" when the signing will ultimately become public -- and when it was announced in a news release.

In short, we think there’s an element of truth to Falk’s claim but it ignores critical facts that could give a different impression.

That’s our definition of Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Kathleen Falk, campaign press release, April 6, 2012

Senate Journal, Monday, April 9, 2012

Email interview with Scot Ross, spokesman for Falk campaign, April 16, 2012

Email interviews with Cullen Werwie, press secretary, Gov. Scott Walker, April 16-20, 2012

Email and phone interviews with Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters, April 18, 2012

Gov. Scott Walker press release on bill signing, April 6, 2012

Email interview, Melanie Conklin, aide to Rep. Peter Barca, April 18, 2012

Phone interview, Sen. Mary Lazich, April 20, 2012

Phone interview, Susan Churchill, deputy Secretary of State, April 19, 2012

Legislative document search, assistance from Legislative Reference Bureau

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More by Dave Umhoefer

Kathleen Falk says Gov. Scott Walker signed bills affecting women in secret

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