Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON – Another legal fight between Wisconsin’s Republicans and Democrats has resulted in a familiar outcome — a hefty bill for taxpayers.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is leaving it to taxpayers to pay $40,000 in legal bills to resolve a public records dispute with Republican Rep. John Nygren of Marinette. The situation comes after Democrats have repeatedly criticized Republicans, including Nygren, for making taxpayers pick up their legal expenses.
"The taxpayers unfortunately pay for a lot of needless litigation and Rep. Nygren brought this lawsuit instead of trying to work with our office," Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said.
Taxpayers are getting used to big legal bills. They had to pay more than $3.7 million for protracted fights over Wisconsin’s election maps, more than $2.3 million for disputes over lame-duck laws limiting Evers’ powers and more than $175,000 for lawsuits over how to conduct elections amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The costs for the lame-duck and election lawsuits will continue to climb because the cases are ongoing and not all bills have been submitted. And details on the costs of lawsuits over Evers’ stay-at-home order have not yet been released.
Those legal bills are for disputes over policy differences. The open records case is different. In that one, Evers late this month agreed to give up more than 10,000 pages of records he initially tried to keep from Nygren.
“I think that he should take a lesson from this that there’s a real risk that when you say no to a records requester that you’re going to get sued … and you’re going to have to settle because the courts are not going to back you up,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Nygren, the co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, would not say whether Evers should personally pay the attorney fees.
Nygren and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester last year declined to chip in for $200,000 in legal bills the state agreed to pay after a judge found they and former Rep. Jesse Kremer of Kewaskum had violated the constitutional rights of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now by blocking it on Twitter.
Nygren at the time suggested he shouldn’t have to pay the legal bills because what he’d done was “completely within my job description.”
In 2018, then-Rep. Dale Kooyenga personally paid $30,000 after the state settled a lawsuit over Kooyenga taking a protest sign from a public area of the Capitol that criticized Republicans. Kooyenga, a Republican from Brookfield, was later elected to the state Senate.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.