The Center for Public Integrity released its 2015 State Integrity Investigation report Monday, giving the state of Wisconsin a ‘D’ grade in integrity — ranking Wisconsin 20th out of all 50 states.

The investigation — which assesses government accountability and transparency — is determined by the existence, effectiveness and accessibility of key governance and anti-corruption mechanisms, according to the report. The report asked 245 questions covering 13 categories about state laws aimed at reducing corruption and how effective they are.

Out of all 50 states, only Alaska, California and Connecticut received an overall grade above a ‘D+,’ with Alaska pulling in the number one rating with a ‘C’ grade. The investigation points to a greater need of transparency in state governments across the nation, University of Wisconsin political science and journalism professor Michael Wagner said.

“State governments need a more direct and easier access to what law makers are doing,” Wagner said. “They need to more appropriately judge the nature of business relations with government officials, leading to a more open government.”

Of the 13 categorical systems evaluated, Wisconsin’s highest ranking came from its state budget processes — how well legislators and citizens can provide input and oversight in the budget process. The Wisconsin government earned a ‘B+’ grade, ranking 11th in the country.

Wisconsin’s lowest ranking was in the category of state civil service management — whether there are laws and regulations for civil servants and their effectiveness. The government received an ‘F’ and ranked 48th in the country.

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Wisconsin also received ‘Fs’ in public access to information, political financing, legislative accountability, judicial accountability and lobbying disclosure.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, said he thinks Wisconsin’s low score is due in part to the current Legislature’s lack of interest in openness and transparency. 

“That’s strange because 20 years ago, Wisconsin was considered the best in the country, in terms of openness and transparency,” Heck said. “It was a model for other states to emulate, but that’s no longer the case.”

The investigation was conducted using state-based reporters who researched the categories and provided fact-based comments to explain their grades. According to the Center for Public Integrity, reporters used tactics from social science and journalism to report on both legal and empirical realities of corruption and governance.

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Patricia Sims, a former Wisconsin State Journal political reporter, conducted the investigation for Wisconsin.

Wagner said it is common for both journalists and scholars to compile information and conduct investigations like the State Integrity Investigation, but they may have different standards with regards to what they are looking for.

“Journalists are really into openness to information,” Wagner said. “They are less interested in providing a systematic assessment of the results of the openness, but they can show what solves and doesn’t solve issues of transparency in our state governments.”

In Sims’ report, she cited three instances as factors of Wisconsin’s ‘D’ grade — a redacted July request Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, made to exempt the Legislature from the state’s open records law, Gov. Scott Walker’s actions to strip public workers of their union rights and a July budget bill that passed without public input.

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This fall, bills dismantling the Government Accountability Board, putting limits on John Doe investigations and making changes to campaign financial donation limits have all gone through both the Senate and Asssembly, but these pieces of legislation passed too late to be considered in Sims’ decision. Should these have been also taken into account for the report, Heck said Wisconsin’s grade would have been closer to an ‘F.’

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“The changes that the legislation have proposed and passed recently, to change the way civil service is conducted in Wisconsin, shows a lack of desire to have a strong, nonpartisan, effective civil service,” Heck said. “There has to be a greater emphasis on opening all facets of state governments and the political process.”