States fail integrity test

The Center for Public Integrity has issued a report that shows tht only three states recieved a grade of better than "D+."  The investigation "found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs."

That's pulling no punches.

After describing disturbing practices in several states, the report says:

These are among the practices illuminated by the State Integrity Investigation, which measured hundreds of variables to compile transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states. The results are nothing short of stunning. The best grade in the nation, which went to Alaska, is just a C. Only two others earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades. The findings may be deflating to the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent poll, now look to the states for policy solutions as gridlock and partisanship have overtaken Washington D.C.

The top of the pack includes bastions of progressive government, including California (ranked 2nd with a C-), and states notorious for corrupt pasts (Connecticut, 3rd with a C-, and Rhode Island, 5th with a D+). In those New England states, scandals led to significant reforms and relatively robust ethics laws, even if dubious dealings linger in the halls of government. The bottom includes many western states that champion limited government, like Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.   The results are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. Franzese said that, with many states still struggling financially, ethics oversight in particular is among the last issues to receive funding. “It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.

The report measures about a dozen factors, including free access to information, executive accountability, electoral oversight, and ethics enforcement agencies.

I question any study that places my home state of Illinois 13th best in public integrity and California 2nd.  It would appear the good folks at the Center have something of a liberal bias – or at least the factors they use to grade the states have a liberal slant.

Still, the study is valuable in ascertaining how well your state is doing in watching those in power.  For example, Illinois gets an "F" for executive accountability – something you would expect from a state where three of the last four governors have gone to jail.  On the other hand, recent reforms in the management of state pensions earned a "B" grade from the report.

The results are disappointing but not surprising.  Most state government is even more beholden to lobbyists and special interests thanks largely to the fact that most legislators are part-time and don't make the effort to inform themselves about the issues, preferring to maximize their fundraising by playing ball with big corporations in the state.

Trying to get people angry at their state governments is hard, because the voter has become cynical about where the loyalties of the politicians lie.  There are ways to improve the public integrity of state government, and you would hope that more legislators would get on board the reform movement.

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