According to a new 2015 State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of all 50 state governments by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, 11 states received failing grades, and the highest grade awarded, to Alaska, was only a C.
These grades are determined by answers to 245 questions “that ask about key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say, but also how well they’re enforced or implemented,” the study explains. These key indicators fall into 13 categories, including public access to information, state budget processes, political financing, and ethics enforcement agencies. State-based journalists were charged with researching current laws and analyzing their implementation.
California and Connecticut round out the top three states, with Michigan, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nevada among the 11 failed states.
This state-level probe found that open record laws with rampant exemptions and loopholes “are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide,” while legislators hide conflicts of interest with private businesses and accept excessive gifts from lobbyists.
For example, a Missouri lawmaker passed a law prohibiting cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores, and although he claimed to represent concerned shoppers, he is also the state director of the Missouri Grocers Association. In New Mexico, lawmakers passed legislation in 2013 that exempts their emails from public records laws.
But it is important to note “There are a couple categories where states scored well,” Nicholas Kusnetz, lead author of the study, told The Christian Science Monitor. “On the good side, a lot of states scored well on budget visibility and internal auditing.”
In the category of "State Budget Processes," seven states scored in the 90s, and only five states failed. And for Internal Auditing, only three states had failing grades. So although most states scored notably worse in 2015 from the 2012 rankings, there have also been some signs of progress.
After receiving the worst-in-the-nation rank in 2012, Georgia enacted a law the following year that caps lobbyists’ gifts to public officials at $75. And since the 2013 scandal of Virginia’s Gov. Robert McDonnell, where he was accused of accepting more than $170,000 in gifts, the newly-elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe has enacted legislation to dissuade corruption, including a $100 cap on gifts to public officials from people seeking state business.
But it’s hard to ignore that all but six states failed in "Public Access to Information." Is there any hope for the flunked states?
“Most of these measures are unique to these states,” Kusnetz tells The Monitor. “They are creating these rules and laws themselves, so it is largely up to them how on how to handle these issues.”
Kusnetz says the best hope for these states is to model one another’s good practices. States with corrupt pasts such as Connecticut and Rhode Island have improved their public accountability to be ranked 3rd and 5th in the 2015 study, respectively, by incorporating some of New Jersey's ethics laws.
But New Jersey’s integrity grade was bumped down from 1st to 19th in the recent ranking, symbolizing the necessary work that still needs to be done across the country.