The majority of state governments are hotbeds of cronyism, with the public shut out from true accountability by loophole-ridden open-records laws, according to a new report on the integrity of statehouses throughout the US.
Eleven of the 50 US states received failing grades for transparency and accountability, while only three earned a score about 70 percent. Alaska, with a score of 76, a “C” grade, was rated highest by the Center for Public Integrity, which just released its 2015 State Integrity Investigation, “a data-driven assessment of state government.” Michigan came in dead last, with a score of 51.
“The State Integrity Investigation assesses the existence, effectiveness, and accessibility (i.e. citizen access) of key governance and anti-corruption mechanisms through a qualitative and indicator-based research process,” the Center for Public Integrity and its partner, Global Integrity, explained their comprehensive probe of state laws and political cultures from coast to coast.
The investigation’s findings are a cavalcade of embarrassing revelations about the overall climate of government transparency in the United States. From states that exempt entire branches of their government from open-records laws to states that absolutely refuse to seriously investigate ethics violations, the report’s findings are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, a state government ethics expert at the Seton Hall University School of Law.
In New Mexico, for instance, legislators passed a resolution — without needing the governor’s approval — to exempt their emails from public records inquiries. “I think it’s up to me to decide if you can have my record,” one New Mexico representative said of the 2013 effort.
Delaware’s Public Integrity Commission, the state’s lobbying and ethics watchdog, has just two full-time staff members, the probe revealed. In 2013, a special state prosecutor found that the agency was so shorthanded, it was not able “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”
In 70 percent of states, part-time state lawmakers can vote on bills that present a clear conflict of interest with their private dealings. Such was the case in Missouri this year, when a legislator introduced a bill barring municipalities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores. The lawmaker — the director for the Missouri Grocers Association — claimed he was standing up for shopper rights. The bill eventually passed, overriding the governor’s veto.
The investigation included assessments of 13 categories within all 50 state governments. Those categories included: public access to information, political finance, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement agencies, and state pension fund management.
For each state, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity contacted numerous state-level organizations and experts involved in government transparency and accountability to weigh-in on a host of questions pertaining to state government operations. The report, then, is a result of a “blend of social science and journalism” with an “aim to assessing the most salient corruption risks in each state.”
Some states with poor overall scores did earn decent grades in certain categories. For instance, 29 earned a B- or better for auditing processes, and 16 earned a B- or better for budget transparency. States like Connecticut and Rhode Island were the near the top of the rankings following scandals that led to the tightening of ethics laws.
Many lowest-ranked states are bastions of American conservatism, where politicians champion limited government. Yet those states, such as Nevada and Wyoming, were joined at the bottom by the likes of Pennsylvania and Delaware, East Coast states that are considered politically liberal compared to the rest of the US.
“It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them, and they don’t want to fund the people enforcing them,” said Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a now-defunct organization dedicated to ethics and lobbying laws in local and state governments.