Robin Vos

Vos

MADISON — Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would assign inspector generals to more than a dozen state agencies, which could cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars and open the door to cronyism, according to critics.

Rep. David Craig and Sen. Stephen Nass’ proposal would create the Office of Inspector General, a legislative service agency similar to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which serves as lawmakers’ budget accounting office, and the Legislative Council, the pool of attorneys that serve lawmakers. The bill calls for the Legislature’s organization committee to appoint 13 inspectors general for six-year terms.

They would be assigned to investigate waste, fraud and abuse across 16 state agencies, including the University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the departments of Administration, Corrections, Natural Resources and Public Instruction. Legislative leaders also could direct the inspectors general to investigate agencies.

The inspectors general would have immediate access to each agency’s records and would be required to report any evidence of fraud to the state Department of Justice and any evidence of waste or abuse to the Legislature. Each agency would have to pay for its inspector general out of its budget.

Craig and Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen each told The AP that the inspectors general would help the Legislature assert oversight of the executive branch. The inspectors general would be more pro-active than the Legislative Audit Bureau, which typically launches its reviews after the fact, they said.

For example, an inspector general assigned to the WEDC might have prevented the problems that have plagued the agency, Mikalsen said. Since Gov. Scott Walker created the agency in 2011 as his flagship job-creation engine, the WEDC has been buffeted by audits finding it has failed to justify expenses, conform contracts with grant and loan recipients to state law and failed to demand proof recipients were creating jobs. Documents released this summer show that the WEDC handed out millions of dollars without a staff review.

“For 20 years, (Nass) has been raising concerns about the Legislature giving away power to the executive branch,” Mikalsen said. “The bill creates a mechanism that will be more will be more active in either preventing or stopping instances of waste, fraud or abuse.”

But the bill wouldn’t come cheap. Agencies have estimated they may have to spend as much as $135,000 annually to pay each inspector general, and that’s not counting support staff or supplies. The UW System anticipates that its inspector general office might cost as much as $3 million if it rings in at the size of its existing internal audit office. But Craig and Mikalsen said the inspectors general could save the state money in the long run by ferreting out fraud and waste.

Matt Rothschild, executive director of government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, warned that the bill could further consolidate one-party rule and invite corruption.

The party that controls the Legislature can further entrench itself by placing its inspectors general appointees within state agencies for six years, he said. The inspectors general may feel beholden to launch or drop investigations according to partisan wishes, he added.

“This could increase cronyism. It could increase corruption. It could entrench one-party rule. All three of those things are bad for democracy,” Rothschild said.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he’s skeptical of any effort to inject partisan influence into state agencies.

Craig said it’s impossible to completely depoliticize the hiring of inspectors general. But he maintained they would serve longer terms than the legislators who appoint them and therefore would want to conduct themselves with integrity in hopes of being reappointed if the other party gains legislative control.

The proposal’s prospects look unclear. The measure got a public hearing in front of the Senate’s government reform committee on Thursday. Nass serves as chairman of that panel.

Spokeswomen for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn’t immediately respond to emails inquiring about the bill’s chances.

The biggest hurdle might be Walker. Governors are typically loathe to give up any control or power. His office didn’t immediately return an email Saturday inquiring about his position on the bill.

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