December 5, 2012

GAB: threatened with overhaul, praised by advocates

State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, incoming Majority Leader, has been suggesting that the Government Accountability Board should be governed by partisan appointees, rather than the six retired judges who now do the job. “I just don’t think they’re an independent voice at all,” the Republican from Juneau told the Associated Press.

If Republicans are united on that, they can do it, since they control the Legislature.

The GAB’s structure was one of the few bright spots in our detailed investigation earlier this year of Wisconsin government institutions for the national State Integrity Investigation:

Just a decade ago, lawmakers from both parties were jailed in the biggest political scandal in state history, in which top legislative leaders used taxpayer-funded legislative caucus offices to run private campaigns, diverting millions of dollars a year in state funds. The secret campaign machine was shut down after the Wisconsin State Journal, the capital’s largest-circulation newspaper, exposed the system in 2001.

That scandal prompted the state to fold its Ethics and Elections boards, long seen as toothless tigers, into a new Government Accountability Board in 2008. Watchdogs say those reforms helped clean up the state.

That explains in part why Wisconsin, a state of about 5.7 million, did not score worse in the State Integrity Investigation, a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. Its overall ranking was 22nd out of 50, with a grade of C- and a numerical score of 70 percent. Its ratings for political financing restrictions, lobbying disclosures, and judicial ethics were higher than the majority of the states, while those for auditing, pensions funds, and redistricting were below most of the states.

“I’m not saying the pussycat has been replaced by a lion,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan clean-government watchdog, “but it’s definitely taken a more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

Read more in “Capitol chaos shines spotlight on secretive state institutions,” from March 19. Or peruse the Wisconsin findings of the State Integrity Investigation.

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