Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ethics Files Less Open in Budget Provision

While the Assembly takes up the state budget today and discusses the state's near fiscal and policy future, do you ever wonder if your state legislator has a financial relationship with a big polluter or a bank getting a government bailout? How about a financial relationship with an ideological think tank? How about a noisy night club down your block?

A majority of the Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee wanted you to keep wondering.

Those legislators have approved a budget provision that would require you to travel to Madison in order to inspect or copy any of the statements of economic interest filed by state public officials, including all state legislators.

Currently, nearly 2,400 state public officials, candidates and nominees file statements of economic interest with the Government Accountability Board each year. The GAB on its website indicates that it "experiences virtually 100% compliance with the law." On average, according to the website, the public examined 500 statements of economic interest each year.

Currently these statements are not online, but you can search indexes to them on the GAB's website at If there is something that interests you, you can request that the board mail or email you a copy of a public official's complete statement.

You get to decide what seems significant. But you should know the current law requires the board to inform the public officials of your request. You may not inspect statements anonymously through the GAB. It is not an easy to use system - it's even a little intimidating.

Copies of statements of economic interest have been posted online by private advocacy groups. This posting would not stop under the budget proposal approved by the Joint Finance Committee. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin believes that it would violate the constitutional rights of these groups to censor them. But the public should not have to rely on private groups for public information held by the public GAB.

If the full Legislature passes this new obstacle to financial disclosure in the budget and Gov. Scott Walker doesn't veto it, ordinary Wisconsin residents will find it nearly impossible to access these documents.
There is no evidence that the limited online access to this information has been abused. Given the compliance rate with the law filing isn't a burden, and even if it were, restricting access would not reduce any burden on filers.

As in most online posting of existing information the cost must be minimal. When men and women enter public service, they know that the public has a right to know about their significant financial relationships. Some people choose not to enter public service to avoid disclosure.

Apparently the reason for decreasing the already limited transparency of this reporting process is to save the public officials from embarrassment or the necessity of explaining their financial relationships to their constituents and voters.

Wisconsin residents deserve good government. They deserve to be able to make informed decisions about matters relevant to the public interest.

They have a right to speak freely with the knowledge of the contents of the statements of economic interest. Requiring Wisconsinites to travel to Madison to examine and copy these public records is an affront.
The Legislature should reconsider this scheme to subvert the liberties of Wisconsin residents.

This op ed, written by ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty, has been updated since it's original publication in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 11, 2011.