By Dixie Huefner, Utahns for Ethical Government
The Utah Legislature currently has an ethical code of conduct that is so vague and general as to be unenforceable, as acknowledged by the Legislature’s own House Ethics Committee. For several years, the media has reported the inadequacy of the Legislature’s ethical code and the support of citizens for an Independent Ethics Commission—to no avail.
Utahns for Ethical Government, a nonpartisan citizen group, drafted an ethics initiative with hopes of getting the issue before Utah’s registered voters. The initiative calls for an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints of legislative misconduct and recommend sanctions. The legislature would retain final authority on discipline of its members, as the Utah Constitution requires.
Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) was formed by former Republican state legislators, Democratic community activists, and independent good-government folks. The people behind UEG were alarmed by what they perceived as a decline in the ethical standards, transparency, and accountability of the Utah Legislature.
By Wally Roberts, Common Cause Vermont
For the fourth year in a row, an attempt to reform Vermont’s campaign finance law failed, as political maneuvering, this time under the guise of observing the niceties of parliamentary procedures, killed the bill in the final days of the session.
The bill, including an amendment which would have banned contributions from corporations, was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the motion of its chair, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, because, he said, the bill “raise(s) constitutional issues.’ Sears acknowledged that the bill had no chance of emerging from his committee in the seven days left in the session.
An assistant attorney general had testified earlier in the year that her office saw no constitutional problems with the original bill. The amendment banning corporate contributions, sponsored by former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) was modeled on the federal Tillman Act of 1907, the constitutionality of which has been repeatedly upheld.
By Caitlin Ginley, Center for Public Integrity
Iowa’s only F grade on the State Integrity Investigation was in the category of public access to information, partly due to a lack of strong enforcement measures.
But Governor Terry Branstad signed a bill last week that would create the Iowa Public Information Board, a nine-member commission that will oversee and enforce the state’s open records laws. The governor noted that the lack of enforcement was highlighted by the State Integrity Investigation and affected Iowa’s overall grade. Iowa ranked 7th among the 50 states and earned an overall grade of C+.
“Hopefully this will move us up from [C+] to a better grade,” Branstad said at the signing on May 3.
By Megan Rhyne, Virginia Coalition for Open Government
Last Thursday I spent my morning with a group of government employees -- 60 of them from all over Virginia, in both local and state government -- whose job it is to manage their agency’s records, to respond to requests under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, or both.
They were there to learn tips, techniques and strategies for better records management. The theory is that the better shape your records are in, the easier it will be to manage FOIA requests. A records analyst from the Library of Virginia helped them understand retention, archiving and proper destruction of public records. A city’s deputy communication director talked about how an agency can implement a citizen-centric FOIA-response policy. The director of the state agency tasked with informally mediating FOIA disputes talked about how even email on private computers is subject to FOIA if it has to do with the public’s business.
They were all there because of me. I’m not in government. Never have been.
By Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
Secrecy seemed to be a common thread running through the session of the Tennessee Legislature that ended May 1. The latest “secret” revealed is that key members of the Legislature met on April 23 at a Nashville restaurant of the session to work out deals on amendments to the governor’s $34.1 billion state budget proposal.
The secret session was revealed in an Associated Press story filed the following day. No one in the Legislature or the governor’s office seemed upset that the meeting was held or revealed in news stories. But a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam did take care to note that no one from the governor’s office participated in the weekend meeting.
Tennessee political reporters and observer s know that this happens near the end of every legislative session in Tennessee. And it’s the reason the State Integrity Investigation, a national project to determine the potential for corruption in all 50 states, gave Tennessee a score of 0 out of a possible 100 on whether the "state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner."
By Dan Krassner, Integrity Florida
Taxpayers in the Sunshine State are being kept in the dark about how our money is spent on economic development projects.
Enterprise Florida, my state’s official economic development organization, is secretly planning new tax-dollar giveaways with code names like "Project Bacon," "Project Mae West," "Project Suite Spot" and "Project Snake Eyes." A review of an Orlando Sentinel database uncovered that Enterprise Florida has given Walmart more than $18 million over the years. It's also given money to GE, Coca-Cola, Burger King and a long list of other companies.
I am not opposed to economic incentives that attract new jobs and capital investment, but Enterprise Florida must operate with more accountability, performance metrics and transparency.
Every year Paul Spencer teaches the U.S. Constitution to the students in his government and politics class at Catholic High School For Boys in Little Rock, Arkansas. Over the last few years, Spencer found himself increasingly upset as he recited the words and recounted the intent of America’s founders.
“I noticed myself getting a little more angry every consecutive year about how things are in government, as opposed to how they are in the textbook,” Spencer said.
Now, Spencer and a group of motivated Arkansas citizens are doing what they can to change the way government operates in their state. Spencer is the leader of Regnat Populus 2012, the organization behind a grassroots movement to pass new ethics laws in Arkansas through a citizen-led ballot initiative. If Spencer’s group obtains the required number of signatures, the people of Arkansas will have the chance to push back against big money in government, double the time a lawmaker has to wait before becoming a lobbyist, and prohibit gift-giving from lobbyists to lawmakers.
Regnat Populus 2012 takes its name from the Latin for phrase “The people rule,” an expression that serves as Arkansas’ state motto, and which Paul Spencer and his partners hope to prove is still true.
By Naomi Schalit and John Christie, ©Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
The state has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations run by legislative leaders or the spouses of high-level state officials since 2003. But because of a loophole in ethics law, the public didn’t know about it.
That won’t happen again.
A bill to require disclosure of state contracts with legislators and executive branch officials has sailed to approval through the House and the Senate. The bill, L.D. 1806, now awaits the signature of Gov. Paul LePage, who said Thursday he will sign it.
““It is reasonable to ask our elected leaders to disclose who is paying them. It is good for the health of our democracy and the people of Maine,” said LePage.
Bill Buzenberg appeared on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" Monday morning to talk about the inspiration for the State Integrity Investigation and the project's findings. The Center for Public Integrity's Executive Director spoke at length with host John McArdle about the investigation, answering questions about why New Jersey ranked first, why Georgia ranked last, and why CPI, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International got involved with the investigation in the first place.
“The work is very serious," Buzenberg said. "Those who have looked at it recognize how detailed it is, and how it will last a long time. This is going to have a very long shelf life."
Buzenberg pointed out that the State Integrity Investigation had already been cited as evidence in reform efforts in five different states.
Conservative Gov. Paul LePage and his liberal counterparts in the Maine state legislature disagree on many issues, but the two sides have found common ground: An 'F' on Maine's report card is unacceptable.
LePage, an outspoken Republican in his first term, is encouraging a piece of legislation that would expose state officials' conflicts of interest and decrease the chances for legislators to line their own pockets with taxpayer money. Gov. LePage said this is the kind of reform that Maine needs to enact to improve the failing grade Maine recieved on its Corruption Risk Report Card.
On the legislative side, House Minority Leader Emily Cain, (D-Orono), said the report card raises substantive issues, and might inspire a bipartisan task force to review the findings and suggest changes going into the next legislative session.