At least seven state governments made changes in 2005 to provide more information to the public on legislators' personal financial interests, a Center for Public Integrity survey of state disclosure offices has found.
With a nod to inspiring citizen trust in government, 47 states require legislators to inform the public on their activities outside the legislature, including their jobs and investments. Three states — Idaho, Michigan, and Vermont — do not require any such disclosure.
Georgia was found to have enacted the most substantive changes to its disclosure system. In an update of the Center's nationwide rankings based on a 2004 survey of states' public disclosure practices, the state jumped from 26th place to sixth for providing more information on legislators' personal finances. The state's new rules added 20 points to its rating, lifting the state's overall score on the survey to 81 out of 100 possible points.
Georgia state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, says disclosure "helps keep people a little more honest and gives a breath of fresh air" to the legislative process. As chairman of the state Senate's Rules Committee and traffic cop for legislation, Balfour played a key role in ensuring that Gov. Sonny Perdue's ethics proposals were voted on before the Georgia General Assembly's 2005 session ended. Just before midnight on the session's last day, the legislature passed House Bill 48, which updated the state's Ethics in Government Act.
Though some of Georgia's watchdog groups said the final version fell short of the intentions of the governor's original bill, the law — which took effect Jan. 9, 2006 — does require more public reporting of legislators' own personal financial ties. It also requires legislators to provide more information on their real property holdings and details about their spouses' employment, investments and board positions.
Balfour offered one example of why such information is important: If a lawmaker sits on the committee that regulates gambling and his wife runs a casino, "the general public has a right to see that and know that," he said.
Rule changes improve scores, rankings
The Center began studying personal financial disclosures of state lawmakers in 1999. The 2004 survey showed that although state legislators often preside over areas in which they hold personal interests, many states have weak mechanisms for disclosing those ties. In fact, 24 states received failing scores on making basic information about the outside interests of their legislators available to the public in the Center's 2004 survey.
Balfour called the Center's survey, which allows state-to-state comparison, an "invaluable" resource in the Georgia legislature's effort to determine how to strengthen its disclosure requirements.
The 43-question survey measured public access to information essential to monitoring whether legislators stand to gain financially from actions they take in office. It graded states on how much they disclose about legislators' employment, personal business activities, clients, investments, real property holdings and leadership positions in organizations. It also studied disclosure statements' accessibility, disclosure law enforcement and rules defining who must file disclosure forms and how often.
Survey answers were assigned a numerical value adding up to a possible 100 points; high scores acknowledged high levels of disclosure, public access and accountability.
Of the seven states that upgraded their disclosure systems since the Center's 2004 study, three — Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia — altered their ethics laws. Georgia joined 26 other states in requiring legislators to disclose the details of their spouses' employment. Tennessee and West Virginia joined 39 other states in requiring legislators to report their officer positions and directorships in outside organizations.
The other four — Delaware, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Utah — now provide the required filings to the public in an electronic format (either on a disc or via the Internet), which can be accessed more easily and speedily than can the traditional paper copies.
The Center has adjusted its state rankings to reflect the disclosure requirement changes:
- Georgia scored 20 more points, boosting its ranking from 26th to sixth with a new total of 81 points.
- Tennessee scored 17.5 more points, moving it up from 44th to 32nd with a new total of 57.5 points.
- West Virginia scored 2.5 more points to raise its score to 45, but leaves it ranked 43rd.
By providing electronic access to legislators' disclosure reports, the other four states each earned three additional points. This is how the change affected the rankings:
- New Jersey's score increased to 76 points and the state moved up from 13th place to 10th place. (The new score also reflects the addition of a point earned for making a blank financial disclosure form available online.)
- Wisconsin's score increased to 70 points and the state moved up from 21st place to 19th.
- Delaware's score increased to 64.5 points and the state moved up from 25th place to 24th.
- Utah's score increased to 9.5 points, but it remained ranked at the bottom of the list of states requiring disclosure in 47th place.
Including Georgia, disclosure agencies in 20 states now make their legislators' filings electronically available. Tennessee officials expect to do so as soon as possible.