Washington Senate chamber
By Mike Mullen
Election Day shouldn’t be the only time state legislators are accountable to the public. While legislatures are in session, state senators and representatives are writing new laws and setting the state budget. But in almost every state, legislators have outside employment and financial interests which constitute the majority of their annual income. This nearly unavoidable reality creates the possibility that those in power will choose their self-interest over the public good while bills and budgets are debated.
The only way to insure the integrity of the legislative process is when lawmakers' interests outside the statehouse and their behavior inside it are available to the public. As the State Integrity Investigation found, those protective measures are rarely inscribed in law, and are even less likely to be put into practice.
On June 25 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its controversial Citizens United decision would apply to state campaign finance laws. In a 5-4 finding, the court affirmed the rights of corporations to finance political activity in the states, rejecting a December 2011 judgment from the Montana Supreme Court, which had invoked a 1912 law that banned corporate expenditures state politics.
By the time the case reached the highest court, 22 states had signed on to challenge Citizens United. The Supreme Court's decision paves the way for an increased role for corporations in state campaigns, with new SuperPACs allowing companies to spend -- and spend, and spend -- to either support or attack candidates for state elected office.
But even before the court's decision, the State Integrity Investigation had uncovered institutional and functional flaws in political financing laws across the country, giving free reign to corporations and political action committes to wield undue influence in election campaigns.
By Mike Mullen
Gov. Scott Walker survived his recall election. The same cannot be said for the integrity of campaign finance laws in Wisconsin.
Incumbents targeted for recall are freed from Wisconsin's normal fundraising limits, and can collect unlimited contributions from individual donors. With the election between Walker and his Democratic opponent, former Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, seen as a battleground for national partisan politics, money poured in on both sides. But Walker exploited the seemingly infinite loophole to tremendous advantage: By election day, Walker's campaign had received more than $30 million in donations, a total that approached the $37.5 million spent by both sides during the 2010 election, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Wisconsin received a grade of 'C-' from the State Integrity Investigation for its political financing laws and practices, with reporter Kate Golden finding proper measures on limits, enforcement, and transparency, while also documenting numerous exemptions and back-channels, including the recall election loophole. But in other states, the potentially polluting influence of unlimited, and sometimes unsupervised campaign financing is constant and permanent, borne out of state laws and practices -- or their absence.
State Integrity Grade ‘Bolstered’ Need for Reform
By Caitlin Ginley
As the California legislature gears up to vote on the state budget, Republicans are demanding greater transparency in the process, citing a C- grade for the budgeting process from the State Integrity Investigation. California ranked 4th out of all 50 states overall with a grade of B-.
On Monday, Republicans called for a 48-hour public review of the budget plan, allowing time for citizens to voice their concerns to representatives before it goes to a vote. Lawmakers face a constitutional deadline to approve a budget for the new fiscal year by this Friday; the fiscal year kicks off July 1. California Democrats control both legislative chambers, as well as the governor’s office.
Judge’s ruling opened gates for election spending with no disclosure
By Corey Hutchins
Longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley had run a lot of high-minded races in this coastal city known for charm and manners, so nothing really prepared him for the bare-knuckle politics he faced in a re-election bid last fall. A shadowy group popped up seemingly out of nowhere and spent an untold amount of secret money to pummel Riley’s record in support of one of his rivals.
None of the mayor’s opponents declared allegiance to the anonymous group that funded TV ads, flyers and a slick website called “The Riley Files” that read like a private investigator's report. The website came complete with images of manila folders titled “Crony Capitalism” and “Misplaced Priorities” along with photos of the mayor paper-clipped to them.
By Corey Hutchins, Columbia Free Times
A Republican state senator in South Carolina known for championing ethics reform legislation has gone down in an upset primary election held June 12.
Mike Rose, who took serious interest in the State Integrity Investigation, a report by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International that gave his state an F grade on its risk for corruption, had planned to introduce a series of reforms based off much of the report next year.
That won't happen.
Challenger Sean Bennett, 44, roundly beat Rose with a grassroots campaign that raised $17,000 compared to the $60,000 that Rose, a 64-year-old former JAG officer, had in his coffers.
By Caitlin Ginley, Center for Public Integrity
A Florida research group released a report yesterday on how to improve the state’s ethics laws, using results from the State Integrity Investigation as a basis for reform. The Sunshine State ranked 18th out of 50 states in the investigation, with an overall grade of C-.
Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes integrity and exposes corruption in state government, has previously held presentations around the state to share the conclusions of the State Integrity Investigation’s corruption risk scorecard for the Sunshine State. The group’s new report, “Corruption Risk Report: Florida Ethics Laws,” identifies key policy changes — such as increasing penalties for ethics violations and creating a corruption report hotline — that could help the state move towards an A grade.
Campaign donations are the most direct way for money to influence politics. As state gubernatorial and legislative candidates begin to ramp up their campaigns for election day, now seems like a good time to draw attention to the laws and practices that govern the political financing of those candidates and their parties.
The State Integrity Investigation results in the political financing category should have a chilling effect on voters who want an honest process behind campaign funding in their state. Only one state got an 'A' grade, and six got a 'B-' or better; at the bottom of the category rankings, 21 states got a grade of 'D-' or worse.
By Caitlin Ginley
Early last month, lawmakers in Iowa completed work on a new open records statute. Senate File 430 creates the Iowa Public Information Board, a nine-member commission charged with enforcing the state’s open records and meetings laws.
For good government advocates in the Hawkeye State, the new legislation was cause for celebration — sort of.
Indeed, there were smiles all around as Gov. Terry Branstad signed the law on May 3 in the ornate Capitol Building, surrounded by lawmakers and journalists — many of whom spent six years on the effort. And the law is undoubtedly a victory of sorts for open government in the state, where enforcement was spotty at best, divided among several local and state entities. If a citizen’s request for information was denied, the only option was to sue — a time-consuming and costly course of action. Now, the Board can investigate complaints and bring them to court on citizens’ behalf.
It all sounds good — except for the fine print.
By Luis Toro, Colorado Ethics Watch
As the first state to pass a Sunshine Law for government meetings, Coloradans are justifiably proud of our state’s history as a leader in safeguarding open government. Our guarantees of public access to government records, however, are not so enviable.
For those of us who routinely use the Colorado Open Records Act (“CORA”) as a way of monitoring how state and local governments are serving their constituents, it was no surprise when the State Integrity Investigation gave Colorado an “F” grade on public access to information. Sadly, Coloradans have allowed our state’s well-known aversion to taxation to trump our desire for open government, while aggressive government lawyers have figured out how to game the system to put citizens seeking public records on the defensive.
As government revenue continues to shrink as a result of a 1992 ballot initiative, cash-strapped state agencies and local governments have become more aggressive about shifting the cost of transparency onto members of the public who ask for information.