With the start of the Republican National Convention this week, the presidential election makes the turn from the preliminaries to the main event. The conventions, debates and relentless campaign ads will dominate the political landscape until election day in November.
While the focus turns to electing a chief executive, the executive branch of government at the state level actually can have more direct impact on the lives of citizens. One of the 14 categories we examined in the State Integrity Investigation focused on executive accountability, in which reporters looked at the laws that keep watch on the actions of governors across all 50 states.
The State Integrity Investigation ranked New Jersey as the top state the executive accountability category, in part because of the laws there requiring disclosure of any conflicts of interest for the governor and the auditing procedures in place to review those disclosures. Governors are required to submit an asset disclosure statement, which is posted online for citizens to view within 24 hours. The statement is audited by the State Ethics Commission.
South Carolina brought up the rear in this category, with an 'F' grade. In South Carolina, the governor is required to file a "statement of economic interest'' before taking the oath of office; however, the governor isn't required by that statement to disclose any information about her assets or sources of income. South Carolina has poor financial disclosure laws for all state officials; proposals on the table now from both legislators and Gov. Nikki Haley take aim at that weakness and may be considered in the 2013 legislative session.
One area in which both New Jersey and South Carolina scored poorly -- along with most other states -- involves the ability of governors to set up non-profit organizations that can be used to reward political supporters or circumvent campaign finance laws. Neither state addresses that possibility through statute, and it is a gap in regulation among most other states as well. Tennessee, which scored third in this category, views this kind of organizations in the same category as political action committees and requires disclosure.
By Kathleen Majorsky
The State Integrity Investigation measured corruption risk in all 50 states across 14 categories. The 330 corruption risk indicators for each state break down into two types: “In law” indicators, which simply judge whether a law exists, and “In practice” indicators, which assess whether or not the laws are properly enforced.
The measurement between these two sets of indicators, called the “enforcement gap,” is where cracks and loopholes offer pathways for corruption in state government.
A state’s poor overall grade does not necessarily mean that it has a large enforcement gap. In fact, there are a few states whose final letter grades are less than stellar, falling in the C- to D- range, that have enforcement gap numbers which indicate that the state government actually goes beyond the laws in place.
By Janet Coats
Lobbying is as much a part of the legislative process as roll call votes and committee meetings. Every year, state capitals are filled with legislators and lobbyists, rubbing shoulders as deals are made and laws are thrashed out.
Organizations of all political stripes hire lobbyists to press their case with legislators. In many instances, lobbyists have developed subject matter expertise that adds to the discourse about a particular bill. While the word lobbyists conjures up images of backroom deals and undue influence, their role in the legislative process can be -- and often is -- constructive.
The key to keeping lobbyists in their proper role lies in transparency. Laws that require disclosure of who lobbyists are working for and how much their are paid allow citizens a view into the web of relationships that surround issue advocacy. But the laws are only as good as the enforcement -- and that means regular auditing to ensure accuracy and completness of information.
In the State Integrity Investigations' review of lobbying disclosure laws around the country, North Carolina received an A and a top ranking. It's easy to see why when you review both that state's laws and the methods of enforcement.
North Carolina law ensures several levels of transparency:
- Lobbyists are required to register with the state
- The rules apply to those who lobby the governor as well as the legislature
- Lobbyists are required to report both what they spend to lobby and how much they are paid to do it
- Those who employ lobbyists are also required to report payments to all lobbyists on a quarterly basis
- The secretary of state's office follows up on all these requirements with regular audits. It checks all lobbying reports for completeness, cross-checks all monthy and quarterly reports and compares lobbyist disclosure reports to those of their employers to assure the information is consistent.
- Perhaps most importantly, the information is available to the public. Government watchdogs in North Carolina report that lobbyist disclosure forms are posted promptly on the secretary of state's website, and they were unfamiliar with any cases where a disclosure form was delayed because of sensitive information.
Lobbyists will always be part of the process. The key to balancing the voices of lobbyists with those of individual citizens is disclosure, auditing and availability of information to citizens.
By Alisa Miller, President and CEO of Public Radio International
The success of the State Integrity Investigation is the result of three organizations combining their complementary strengths for a single project and vision. Global Integrity provided a wealth of experience in research and data-gathering in the area of government transparency and accountability. The Center for Public Integrity brought a network of investigative journalists and important editorial leadership. And Public Radio International contributed editorial expertise, leadership in web, social media and digital tools and its collaborative skills by selecting and working with a network of public radio station partners.
In the end, PRI’s project goals were three-fold: contributing to the creation of an incredible storytelling platform for government transparency and effectiveness, partnering with leading stations and other news players to tell local-national-and-international angles on these stories, and finally inspiring individuals to share the State Integrity Investigation results with their family, friends, fellow citizens, and the elected officials who have the power to change the way state government works. In order to reach the final goal, PRI was responsible for creating and managing the initiative website, www.stateintegrity.org, and leading all the social engagement for the project.
By Mike Mullen
A simple Google search will produce a map and directions on how to find the state capitol, where staffers can help citizens locate legislative chambers and hearing rooms. But this seemingly easy access hardly guarantees that what takes place in open meetings is a reliable predictor for the laws that will govern the state.
Aside from regulations on legislators’ potential conflicts of interest, the Legislative Accountability category also assessed the openness of each state’s lawmaking process. These corruption risk indicators are more difficult to judge by face value, so state reporters turned to statehouse veterans who had been trying to access and influence the legislature. In state after state, sources reported that it is often hard to actually observe the sausage as it is being produced, which helps to explain the oft-surprising flavor it takes on when finally released for public consumption.
By Mike Mullen
Ethics enforcement is the first line of defense in protecting the public trust. A state can have all of the proper laws to regulate government behavior, but those laws mean little without a professional and independent enforcement mechanism in place.
The State Integrity Investigation looked into whether states had a fully capable agency, one that could initiate investigations, carry out its mandate without outside interference and impose penalties on those who violate ethics laws across all branches of government. Examples of wrongdoing could range from a legislative leader soliciting under-the-table campaign donations to a workaday state employee taking a gift bribe in exchange for special treatment.
With that much on the line, it’s telling that the two states that the top two states in the Ethics Enforcement category (New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively), also took the top two spots in the State Integrity Investigation's overall rankings. The bottom of the category rankings is unlike any other subject under review in the State Integrity Investigation. Alarmingly, nine states were found to have no ethics enforcement agency in place, and received 0 percent ‘F’ grades.
The Center for Public Integrity announced last week that South Carolina ranked dead last nationally for public access to government information.
It wasn’t exactly news, because those of us who try to discover and disseminate that information have always sort of known it and, more to the point, because it was just a rehash of one part of the center’s landmark study from this spring that famously named our state the nation’s sixth most corruptible. As I noted earlier, that report was laced with questions about how easily the public could access information in general and information about potential conflicts in particular, and time after time we scored abysmally on them.
Still, this reminder of how we stack up against our peers couldn’t have been more timely, coming as it did against the latest spate of secrecy scandals.
Read the rest of this story at The State.
State Integrity news for Utah from the Deseret News:
The issue of legislative ethics reform won't go before voters, at least not this year.
The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a lower court's summary judgment decision that would have given members of Utahns for Ethical Government an opportunity to gather signatures for an initiative to be included on the November ballot.
"This is a hugely disappointing turn of events," UEG representative David Irvine said Tuesday.
The group had intended for citizens to vote in November on a proposed code of conduct for state lawmakers.
Read more from the Deseret News.
'Stealth' budgeting and 'striker' bills eliminate public from the process
By Kathleen Ingley and Maureen West
Arizona’s legislative session this year was as hard to track as a Stealth bomber, even for many Capitol regulars.
A bill focused on attorney’s fees turned into a controversial measure about abortion. Other bills changed subjects too. And the Legislature took just one morning of public testimony about the budget. The real wrangling over state spending was done in two months of private meetings between the governor and legislative leaders. But the details of the blueprint weren’t public until lawmakers were on the floor ready to vote.
By Caitlin Ginley
Citing the Center for Public Integrity’s States of Disclosure project and State Integrity Investigation as a basis for reform, the nonpartisan research group Integrity Florida has issued a report calling for stronger financial disclosure requirements in the Sunshine State.
Among the report’s recommendations: requiring Florida state officials to fill out more detailed financial disclosure forms and making that information available online in a searchable database format.