2000 Finalist
State of Wisconsin
Innovations in American Government Awards
Sponsored By:
Innovations in American Government Awards

While many states have laws advocating strict reporting requirements for state-registered lobbyists, often the most difficult part of such schemes is making sure information on the funding and activities of powerful lobbying groups reaches the voters and legislators of the state. For examples, voters noticing signs in their neighborhood urging a "No" vote on supermarket liquor sales might benefit from knowing that liquor stores and restaurants, not private citizens, paid for their installation. While lobbyists attempting to alter federal policies come under intense scrutiny from national good-government groups, state politics have long lacked a similar level of access to crucial lobbying data.

Before 1989 in Wisconsin, lobbying laws were overseen by the Secretary of State (a partisan position) and enforcement of rules was largely ineffective. After reforms in that year, the non-partisan Ethics Board took over lobbyist enforcement, but progress was hampered by burdensome paperwork and long delays between updated information on the scope and focus of lobbying.

In 1999, after several years of planning, the Ethics Board, under the leadership of director Roth Judd, introduced a service known as Lobbyists-on-Line (LOL). Under this program, within two weeks of a lobbyist's first communication with a legislator or agency official about a bill or rule, the lobbyist's employer identifies its interest in the bill or rule to the Ethics Board. Every business day, the Board updates its website with any new information about lobbying and pending legislation.

The program permits anyone affected by proposed legislation to enter into the debate- forming alliances with other interests, identifying potential antagonists, and correcting misunderstandings or misrepresentations of motives and obligations with current, accurate information-early in its consideration. The site is searchable by lobbyist, lobbying organization, bill, or issue; each entry on a bill or resolution provides a list of groups lobbying on that particular point and their position on it.

While other jurisdictions' lobbying disclosure rules often merely identify lobbyists and their compensation, LOL places emphasis not on the lobbyists themselves, but on the businesses, trade and professional associations, governments, and citizen groups that pay lobbyists to try to influence state law.

Before LOL, there was no convenient way for legislators, journalists, and members of the public to determine the interests paying lobbyists to influence the course of a particular agenda item; information about lobbying was reported only at six-month intervals, and some lobbyists simply declined to report their private meetings with legislators. Now, compliance with ethics rules among lobbyists is high, as lobbyists monitor competitors for potential violations and legislators on opposite sides point out when opponents are not accurately reporting their time and money spent on lobbying.

The bill founding the program was supported by party leadership on both the Republican and Democratic caucuses, and has wide support from all quarters. In 1999, the Ethics Board's web site was viewed an average of 4,740 times a month, with up to 200 unique users in a single day. The Wisconsin Legislature's private intranet links to the site, and many legislators use the lobbying information to inform their own debate over bills and resolutions as they are being decided on.