How did New Jersey finish first?

New Jersey Statehouse

Even one of New Jersey's top elected officials was stunned to hear that the Garden State ranked first in the State Integrity Investigation.

"I'm still in shock," Senate Majority Leader Lorretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said, laughing. “If we’re number one, I feel bad for the rest of the states.”

New Jersey’s rating in a measure of states' risk of corruption may seem counterintuitive: Weinberg said she's served with three state senators who either are in prison or were recently released.

But the State Integrity Investigation is not a measure of morality or good behavior of the people serving in state government. Rather, it is a test of the structure that governs the government, documenting the laws on the books and investigating the actions that enforce those laws. The fact that New Jersey has sent numerous state employees to prison suggests its laws are strong, and rigorously enforced.

Across a number of categories, New Jersey has laws and practices that protect the state government’s integrity. Some states lack the laws that insure government accountability. In others, violations go undetected due to negligent or willful enforcement failures.

The No. 1 ranking in the State Integrity Investigation does not make New Jersey the least corrupt state in the country, in the same way that seatbelts and airbags don't prevent car accidents.

So, how did New Jersey win? The state finished first overall in Executive Accountability, Civil Service Management, State Pension Fund Management, and Ethics Enforcement. New Jersey didn’t have a bad category, ranking above the median in 13 of 14 categories. The state also benefitted from weak competition, as evidenced by the fact that its B+ grade was good enough for first place.

Ask the people in charge, and the answer is that New Jersey has undergone a period of rapid reform in just a few years.

State Representative Declan O’Scanlon, (R-Monmouth), has been promoting ethics reform since he first ran for his house seat in 2005.

“If you folks had been doing this assessment back then,” O’Scanlon said, “New Jersey would certainly not have been number one -- it may have been dead last.”

Since then, New Jersey has improved its policies on procurement, ethics enforcement, and made it less expensive for citizens to access public information. The state still needs to aspire to an ‘A’ grade, O’Scanlon said, noting that the government could still be more accountable and transparent. For her part, Weinberg feels that if New Jersey is in some ways a model state, then the model should be one of a work in progress.

“I’ll take it,” Weinberg said of the top ranking. “But I hope it’s not going to be construed that all our work is done.”

Find out more in New Jersey: The story behind the score from SII state reporter Colleen O'Dea.


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