June 24, 2009

Wisconsin receives “C” for lawmakers’ disclosures

use-this-grading-top

Wisconsin gets a grade of “C” for disclosing the financial interests of its state lawmakers, according to a report released today by the Center for Public Integrity.

Jonathan Becker, administrator of the ethics division for the state Government Accountability Board, said Wisconsin hasn’t changed its financial disclosure requirements since the last “States of Disclosure” survey in 2006, when it was ranked 19th. This year it’s ranked 22nd, in part because a few states boosted their disclosure requirements, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

The Center found that since the last survey, a number of states had improved public access by making legislators’ disclosure forms available electronically, mostly online. In 2006, 21 states had this capability; since then, eight more states have followed suit — Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

In the latest survey, 20 states — including Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois — received a failing grade.

Becker said a bill pending in the state Legislature sponsored by Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, would open the door to more transparency. It would eliminate the requirement that the Government Accountability Board notify public officials each time someone requests to see his or her report — which would allow the GAB to offer more information to the public online. “That (bill) would allow us to post the official’s entire statements on our (Web) site rather than just an index, as we do now,” Becker said.

Wisconsin got high marks for requirements including listing the name of an official’s employer on the statement of economic interests. But the state got low marks for not requiring officials to list their spouse’s name, how much money they earn or the value of property they own. Becker said it’s up to the Legislature to determine how much financial information its own members must disclose.

Statements of economic interests filed by members of the legislative, executive and judicial branches allow the public to determine whether officials in Wisconsin have a conflict of interest when it comes to actions they take. For example, the financial-disclosure forms filed by then-Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Annette Ziegler revealed that as a judge, she had repeatedly presided over cases involving West Bend Savings Bank when her husband was on the bank’s board of directors. Ziegler, who was elected to the high court in 2007, was given a public reprimand by her fellow justices.

The Center for Public Integrity bases its rankings on a 43-question survey that measures public access to information on legislators’ employment, investments, personal finances, property holdings, or other activities outside the legislature. Center researchers obtain answers to the survey questions by examining state statutes and disclosure forms and interviewing state ethics officers.

Survey answers are assigned a numerical value adding up to a possible 100 points; the highest scores reflect the highest degree of disclosure. Wisconsin scored a 70. The nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based investigative reporting center has been ranking the effectiveness of state financial disclosure laws since 1999.