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.
Washington ranked first in the Legislative Accountability category, with an 87 percent ‘B+’ grade. The state's grade was boosted thanks to a near-perfect set of laws governing conflicts of interest disclosure, oversight, and public access. On the indicator measuring whether the laws on gifts and hospitality offered to legislators are effective, state reporter Vickie Kilgore found official oversight could be better, but marked a 75 percent score, due to a lack of documented corruption cases.
“Sources agree that this is not being monitored,” Kilgore wrote, “but state officials typically follow the rules on this because of the embarrassment of being caught. They can cite no instance of abuse.”
With a 36 percent ‘F’ grade, Maine finished 50th in the Legislative Accountability category. The state had a total lack of laws forcing asset disclosure from legislators, which dropped its score significantly. On indicator after indicator, Maine reporter Naomi Schalit marked the state with a 0 percent or 25 percent score due to the lack of asset disclosure from lawmakers.
Fortunately, Maine’s woeful performance in the category brought its shortcomings to the forefront: In April, the legislature passed increased disclosure requirements, including one measure that will force lawmakers to reveal whether any organization in which they or a family member is a manager or owner has received $10,000 or more from the state.
These improvements aside, Maine legislature has much to work on before it achieves transparency: On an indicator that assesses whether citizens and civil service organizations can sufficiently influence the legislative process, Schalit relied in part on the expertise of Ann Luther, former president of the League of Women Voters of Maine, who said that citizen voices are missing during the all-important crunch time.
“Yes,” Schalit wrote, “except at the end of the session. At the beginning, it’s fine. During the last two weeks, forget it.”
Here are the full rankings and grades for states in the Legislative Accountability category, along with the states' overall grades. Click through the states for more information, including reporting comments and sources.