How Transparent is Our State Government?

Published on: 2/5/2013

The process of governing is full of temptation for those involved. Large piles of campaign cash, high-stakes lobbying efforts, and chances to game the system create frequent opportunities for corrupt behavior. In response, states across the country have taken steps to clean-up their governments through tough ethics, campaign, and disclosure laws.

In Wisconsin, we believe that we have fairly transparent and clean government. Our state Open Meetings Law and Open Records Law are meant to ensure that the people's business is conducted in full public view. Our Government Accountability Board provides a non-partisan check on the worst campaign and ethics abuses. Strict lobbying laws prohibit almost any sort of tangible gifts from lobbyists to politicians.

However, I was recently shocked when I learned Wisconsin's score in a recent State Integrity Investigation. Of the 50 states, Wisconsin was ranked as having only the 24th lowest corruption risk, getting a disgraceful grade of C-. This non-partisan study, first published in July, 2012, was conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International, and Global Integrity.

The in-depth investigation scored each state with respect to 330 specific topics in 14 different areas of disclosure and ethics laws. The areas included: public access to information, accountability of the three branches of government, civil service management, pension fund management, political financing, budget process, procurement, lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement, and redistricting.

Wisconsin's best grades were in the areas of procurement (B-), internal auditing (B), lobbying disclosure (B), and ethics enforcement agencies (B-). The latter two areas are under the aegis of the Government Accountability Board, or GAB.

The GAB oversees Wisconsin's election, campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying laws. The board consists of six nonpartisan retired judges who serve staggered six-year terms. The board has been in existence since 2008, replacing a highly partisan Election Board and a fairly toothless Ethics Board.

However, various legislators, including the Senate “majority” leader Scott Fitzgerald, have recently been making noises to abolish the GAB  and return to a partisan Ethics Board. Such a move can only hurt transparency and enforcement in these important areas.

Our lowest scores were in the areas of pension fund management (D-), public access to information (D-), and redistricting (F). The low pension fund grade was not based on solvency or effectiveness of investments, but on laws covering transparency of the operation.

Wisconsin's scores on access to information were mixed. We received high scores for actually having open records and meetings laws, but much lower ratings for their effectiveness. We have no entity that monitors compliance with the laws.

Our Open Meetings Law was essentially gutted by the State Supreme Court in June 2011. In a decision concerning the end of collective bargaining by public employees, the Court determined that the legislature is above the Open Meetings Law and does not really have to obey it.

Wisconsin politicians frequently attempt to evade our Open Records Law. For example, the former Milwaukee County Executive had a separate secret and private e-mail system to keep office communications from public view.

Because of non-compliance, there is often a need to gain government records through the court system, a lengthy and expensive procedure. One example is the recent successful legal suit by the Center for Media and Democracy and Common Cause to obtain e-mails exchanged between five state Representatives and the lobbying group, ALEC.

Wisconsin's 2011 redistricting efforts received the worst of all of our scores, a big red F. Many states do redistricting either in a bipartisan or non-partisan process. Not Wisconsin. In a fully opaque process, our new maps were drawn at a private law firm in order to circumvent public scrutiny. Legislators, including those representing Germantown, signed secrecy agreements to keep details of the plot from taxpayers. A three judge panel deemed this sordid and furtive behavior by Republican legislators “all but shameful". As late as last week, not all details of the gerrymandering process had been released to the public.

The resultant highly partisan legislative maps make a mockery of the votes of Wisconsin's citizens. We saw the results of the redistricting scheme in the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters during the November election. Despite Democratic candidates receiving 200 thousand more votes than their rivals, the Democrats constitute a 39-60 minority in the State Assembly.

Wisconsin deserves a government as good as its people. There is no reason for our state to have such mediocre transparency and enforcement scores. We should at the very least not make things worse by tinkering with our independent GAB. We should institute a non-partisan redistricting board to draw new legislative boundaries. We should act now to put enforcement teeth into the state Open Meetings and Records Laws. Our state government should not be a feeding trough for crooked politicians and special interests.