When state legislators in Wisconsin began work last year on a plan for redistricting, the once-a-decade process when states draw new district maps for Congress and state legislatures, they found themselves presented with non-disclosure agreements requiring them to keep their deliberations confidential.
In Ohio, the Republican National Committee kicked off a training session on redistricting for state leaders by telling them to “keep it secret.”
Democratic leaders in Illinois held dozens of public hearings after promising a more open process. But all of the meetings came before the congressional redistricting maps were released, and the Democratic majority quickly approved their own proposals with little opportunity for the public, or Republicans, to voice concerns.
State Integrity News from SII partner New England Center for Investigative Reporting:
Deep flaws in Massachusetts laws constructed to keep government honest have sustained a recurring parade of criminal and ethical misconduct charges involving public servants in the past five years, a study by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting shows.
Massachusetts earned a “C” grade earlier this year in a national State Integrity scorecard released by the Center for Public Integrity. Among its lowest scores were an “F” for the transparency of the state budget process and public access to information, a “D+” for legislative accountability and a “C-” for the effectiveness of the state Ethics Commission. Judicial accountability earned a “C+ in Massachusetts.
Read more from NECIR.
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 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 Caitlin Ginley
The Center for Public Integrity
The North Carolina Ethics Commission has received more than 300 ethics complaints since its establishment in 2006 — but it has initiated just 18 investigations through 2010.
The Tennessee Ethics Commission, also established in 2006, has yet to find anyone guilty of an ethics violation. It has heard five complaints in five years — and thrown all of them out.
The Pennsylvania Ethics Commission takes in between 400 and 600 complaints each year. But severe budget cuts have left the panel with only five full-time investigators to handle the workload.
And last year, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission had its full-time support staff reduced from two people to one.
“It’s just me,” said Jane Feldman, the Colorado commission’s executive director. Feldman said she currently has an annual budget of $224,000 but — unlike commissions in many other states — no investigators or lawyers to initiate real enforcement.
“I don’t think we’re a dirty state. I think we’re a pretty clean state,” Feldman said. “But I think there are cases, especially conflicts of interest issues, where since we don’t have an investigator we don’t follow up.”
Such tales are far from unusual. Some 41 states have government bodies that oversee and enforce state ethics laws. But an examination by the Center for Public Integrity reveals that many of them do little more than provide a false sense of security. In fact, the State Integrity Investigationa first-of-its-kind probe of accountability in state government — gave grades of either D or F to 28 of those state ethics panels.
The problems and challenges are many. In some states, it boils down to a question of resources — short-staffed agencies with dwindling budgets, outdated, crumbling technology and an increasing workload. Other agencies face restrictions in the law; they can only investigate a complaint if the complainant is willing to be named, or if a majority of commissioners, who may be divided along party lines, agree to pursue a case.
Beyond those obstacles, though, is a more basic and troubling common thread; many of these state ethics watchdogs sport no real teeth. According to the State Integrity Investigation state ethics commissions remain woefully ill-equipped to properly investigate complaints and dole out punishment.
That’s partly because an inherent conflict stands at the core of the mission: the ethics agency commonly is tasked with policing the same government officials who control its funding, resources and regulatory power.
“The people who it’s policing are the people who give it power,” said Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “It has to be independent, or it doesn’t work so well.”
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.
By Mike Mullen
Fewer and fewer Americans have faith in the integrity of the legislative process in Washington, D.C. Recent investigations have uncovered the frequency with which legislators use their insider knowledge to profit using timely maneuvers with their stock holdings; on July 10, the House Ethics committee voted to move forward with an investigation into whether Nevada Rep. Sheila Berkeley used her influence to protect her husband’s business interests.
But political power wielded for selfish interest exists just outside the Beltway, too. In neighboring Maryland and Virginia, the State Integrity Investigation uncovered a lax system of oversight on the conduct of state legislators. Both states were found lacking in the requirements and enforcement of state legislators’ conflict of interests, which present the obvious threat of legislators setting state policy and spending taxpayer money in order to line their own pockets.
New laws and changes in existing ones can dramatically affect the ways that government is accountable to the citizens it is supposed to serve.
Keeping track of those changes -- at both the state and national level -- can be a daunting task. We're adding access to a tool on the State Integrity Investigation website today that makes that task signficantly easier.
With Scout, you can keep track of legislation on subjects that matter to you, create alerts so that you will automatically be notified of changes in the status of a bill and share your searches with others.
Scout was created by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that uses the power of the internet and digital tools to work for government openness and transparency. It tracks legislation on both the state and national level; the service is free.
To use Scout, you access the search box in the right column of this site, below this post. You can type in a word or phrase on any subject (try "intellectual property'' for a test) and Scout will return results on legislation in Congress, speeches in Congress and legislation in the states on that subject. If you enter Scout from a state page on the site, your search will return information specific to that state. You then can create an alert, so that you'll automatically be notified about new developments on that topic. You can learn more on the Scout website here.
We'll be telling you more about Scout, the thinking behind it, how it is being used and how you can make it work for you throughout the week.
By Mike Mullen
Most elected officials don’t want to tell citizens anything but the good news. But practiced speeches, triumphant press conferences, and highly polished press releases are little more than the announcement of policy decisions. By that time, the facts have been spun, sweetened and seasoned for public consumption. If you want the full story, you probably have to ask.
Though every state has some form of an “open record” law, exceptions and interpretations in many states are designed to protect the government, and leave the burden of discovery on the citizen. The State Integrity Investigation uncovered numerous legal and financial obstacles that prevent revelations of how and why a state government takes action. According to Caitlin Ginley of the Center for Public Integrity, “in state after state, the laws are riddled with exemptions and loopholes that often impede the public’s right to know rather than improve upon it.”