Wisconsin receives C- for government accountability

GAB strengthens oversight, but hidden flows of money pose corruption risk

About this story

This story was produced with support from the State Integrity Investigation, a ranking of all 50 states’ corruption risk by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism assessed Wisconsin for the project, which gave the state a C-, ranking 22nd among the states: www.stateintegrity.org/wisconsin.

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By Kate Golden
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Wisconsin receives a C- in a nationwide ranking of states’ accountability and risk of corruption.

The State Integrity Investigation, released today, ranks Wisconsin 22nd, with a score of 70 percent — a score boosted by the creation in 2008 of the state Government Accountability Board to help clean up government.

“I’m not saying the pussycat has been replaced by a lion,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan clean-government watchdog, “but it’s definitely taken a more aggressive approach to enforcement.”

The nationwide, months-long investigation was a collaborative project led by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism completed the Wisconsin portion of the assessment, relying upon extensive interviews and research to measure 330 “Corruption Risk Indicators” across 14 categories of government. (See Wisconsin’s report card at the end of this story.)

Wisconsin’s ratings for political financing restrictions, lobbying disclosures, and judicial ethics were higher than those of most states, while those for auditing, pensions funds, and redistricting were lower. The state also received its only F for redistricting.

The backdrop for many of Wisconsin’s current ethical controversies is an unprecedented flow of money into the state’s political machinery, fueled largely by the controversial tenure of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a drive to recall him, the Center found.

With last year’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, some loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws have grown even wider.

The rise in third-party spending is “the most significant development in lack of accountability and transparency” in Wisconsin, said former state legislator Mordecai Lee, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

At the same time, the accountability board is under fire by Republican lawmakers who’d prefer to go back to the old ethics and elections boards, which were controlled by the party in power. “I think that system worked fairly well,” state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently.

In the ranking, no state received an A. Five states got a B, 19 received a C, 18 got a D and eight received an F — a grade of 59 or below.

The F’s went to North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia.

The top five most transparent and accountable states, according to the project, are New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska.

The project was a first-of-its-kind, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states.

Unlike previous rankings of state governments, the State Integrity Investigation does not rely on a simple tally of scandals. Rather, it measures the strength of laws and practices that encourage openness and deter corruption.

The investigation found that scandals often propel states toward improved transparency and accountability. In the Garden State, lawmakers have acted to pass some of the toughest ethics and anti-corruption laws in the nation.

The methodology was designed by Global Integrity, a nonprofit organization with deep experience measuring and promoting transparency and accountability in more than 100 countries. Global Integrity also will help citizens use the data to improve their states.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization, oversaw and edited the work of local reporters. Independent reviewers further vetted the state data for accuracy.

Public Radio International is managing the State Integrity Investigation website (www.stateintegrity.org) and a social media campaign to get the public invested in supporting honest government. On the site and Facebook, people can send their state report cards to public officials, offer solutions and surface problems. PRI is distributing the investigation to its public radio affiliates and ethnic media.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) produced this story as part of the State Integrity Project, assessing corruption risk in all 50 states: www.stateintegrity.org/wisconsin. The Center collaborates with news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The State Integrity Investigation received major funding from the Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation, with additional support from the Rockefeller Family Fund.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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