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Examining indicators like open records and financial disclosure laws, CPI’s 2015 report shows 11 states with “F” grades. And the highest score was only a “C.”
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity has released updated results of the pathbreaking State Integrity Investigation it first published in 2012 and this year's results are "deeply troubling," according to the organization.
Over the previous three years, safeguards against government corruption in the 50 states did not get tighter, the investigation found. They got looser.
The updated report, like the first, grades each state and includes data-driven rankings based on hundreds of “indicators”—factors like open-records and financial disclosure laws. This time, the project also added the work of journalists based in each state who dug into the topic on the ground.
Last time around, five states received a B grade, including New Jersey, which topped the list with a B+. This year, the Garden State came in at No. 19, earning a solid D grade.
Alaska ranked highest in this year’s updated report with the Last Frontier receiving a C grade, up from a D+. That’s as good as it gets. California came next, also with a C, down from a B-. From there, the ratings plunge fast.
Eleven states received F grades. Louisiana (No. 41) earned an F grade, but it is the only Deep South state to have landed in the basement of the CPI’s rankings. Regionally, it is states in the Great Plains and West that are concerning.
There is a swath of 14 contiguous states that stretch from the Canadian border to the Mexican border that have significant problems. In the 2012 report they did badly as a group. This year, the group has done much worse. Nebraska (tied for No. 8) and Colorado (No. 13) outperformed their nearby peers by earning D+ grades. Oklahoma (No. 40), Kansas (tied for No. 42), Nevada (No. 46), South Dakota (No. 47) and Wyoming (No. 49) all received F grades.
As the project makes clear, deterring corruption and promoting accountability and transparency is a low-priority for government officials. Indeed, that’s the fact that drives public demands for ethics, open records and disclosure laws.
But government integrity is a broad topic. Sex scandals, campaign-finance violations and pay-to-play deals make headlines. But many violations either don’t make the news or are never caught. Many rules are next to impossible to enforce. Tracking the everyday workings of the sprawling and varied machinery of the public sector is often difficult and small-bore work.
Indeed, behind the rankings and charts and maps, CPI’s State Integrity Investigation has captured a certain attitude of officialdom. The data reflect the victory of a status quo preferred by the kind of public servants who view requirements tied to tasks like gift and donation reporting as at best nitpicking bureaucracy and at worst roadblocks to taking short cuts and doing illegal deals.
The public, however, often sees things differently. They view the requirements as the necessary rules of the game. Citizens consistently vote in favor of ethics laws, they applaud the work of auditors.
The result is that officials don’t come out against ethics laws, but they are often unopposed to diluting them with a thousand drops of delay, dismissal and stingy resource allocation.
“There is a stark difference between not having a reputation for public corruption and not being at risk for it,” journalist Corey Hutchins wrote about Colorado in one of the 50 state reports published by CPI.
Government here has ways to keep public information secret. Gift reports, personal financial disclosures, and money-in-politics filings of politicians and judges are not audited for compliance. The state's ethics commission, staffed with a single professional, is understaffed, under-funded, and lacks independence: It relies on the attorney general's office for legal counsel—even though that office is also subject to the commission’s oversight.
Americans have long championed state governments as more accountable, close-to-the-people engines of democracy. For just as long, they have have also criticized state governments as cozy clubhouses where favoritism and graft rule the day. The record established by the Integrity Investigation suggests that, in the absence of tightly drafted laws coupled with real enforcement power, there will be less accountability and more graft in years to come.
This week, Route Fifty will take a closer look at some of the report’s findings. Explore the full report here.
John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Boulder, Colorado.