WHEN THE class average is a D or lower, most of the pupils are probably witless dolts. All the worse for American taxpayers when those dullards are the 50 state governments — specifically, their laws on ethics and openness, and the legislators who make those laws.
That’s the verdict of a new report by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which conducted a survey of state laws on political finance; lobbying; public access to information; electoral oversight; and accountability of state legislative, executive and judicial branches. By the center’s reckoning, 11 states received failing grades and just three — Alaska, California and Connecticut — earned marks better than a D+.
Anyone who cares about good government will be stunned by the extent to which states lack rules to minimize conflicts of interest, insider deals between lawmakers and lobbyists, and outsize influence for deep-pocketed special interests.
The report details open-records laws pockmarked with exemptions; blatant conflicts of interest such as that of a Missouri lawmaker — himself the state director of the Missouri grocers’ association — who championed a law prohibiting localities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores; and toothless watchdog agencies that lack the means and authority to audit disclosure reports and investigate corruption.
It’s a measure of how poorly the states performed that the most improved, by far, was Virginia, which received a D grade — an improvement over its flunking mark in the center’s previous report, in 2012. Then, Virginia ranked 47th among the states; it has moved up to 16th but still received F’s for its lax rules on public access to information, political finance and lobbying disclosure.
Virginia’s gains stem from laws enacted after the scandal that engulfed former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), who, along with his wife, Maureen, was convicted on federal corruption charges for accepting more than $175,000 in loans and gifts from a businessman. The new laws cap the value of such gifts to public officials and their families but are less than watertight; legislators may still accept freebie food and drink and trips to events hosted by lobbyists. Most glaringly, Virginia remains one of the few states that imposes no limits on donations to state political campaigns. While most states have ethics commissions, many of them, including the one recently established in Virginia, lack investigative and enforcement muscle, including the power to issue subpoenas.
Maryland (grade: D; rank: 23) was also found severely lacking by the center’s report, which called special attention to its pitiable practices with regard to public access to financial disclosure forms filed by officials and lawmakers. Citizens seeking those documents, available only on paper, must travel to Annapolis to look them up, and doing so triggers alerts to the official or lawmaker concerned.
Maryland’s legislature did tighten its public information act this year, but Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has not yet filled newly created positions on a board to monitor compliance or name ombudsmen to mediate disputes, the report said.
The report’s take-away is that state officials still love operating with minimal scrutiny and public access. It will take sustained pressure to nudge most of them into the 21st century.