State ethics update — July 31

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Since the release of our States of Disclosure report last month, we’ve been monitoring discussions in state capitols about the need for tougher disclosure requirements — particularly among some states that came in at the bottom of our list, like West Virginia and Idaho.

But the biggest recent news on the ethics front comes from New Jersey, which, by our standards has a pretty average level of disclosure, having received a “C” grade. In late July, three mayors, two state legislators, and five rabbis were among those arrested on corruption and money laundering charges in the Garden State. Couple that with a study on the effectiveness of New Jersey’s ethics laws (bottom line: things could be better) released this June, and you have the perfect environment — theoretically — for reform. State Republicans have taken this opportunity to call out Governor Jon Corzine and the Democratic Party for ignoring the need for better ethics laws, and have proposed their own legislation to strengthen the ethics commission and close pay-to-play loopholes. We’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, in West Virginia, which ranked 44th and received an F on our survey, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead announced he will push for tougher standards during the next legislative session, including a requirement for legislators to report information about their spouses’ outside interests. The state legislature has previously killed measures to require such information. The State ethics commission expects to review these proposals in September.

In Idaho, which lacks any disclosure laws, House Speaker Lawrence Denney has promised not to quash a disclosure bill, like he did this past year, if someone else in the legislature brings it up. This, obviously, offers no guarantees of transparency, but might help move the Gem State from the bottom of our list.

Finally, in Wisconsin (another “C” state) a bill was offered in May to eliminate the requirement that people requesting financial disclosure records must leave their names. As it stands now, Wisconsinites can be fined up to $5,000 or serve a year in prison if they don’t disclose their personal information. The measure is currently awaiting action in the Judiciary and Ethics Committee.

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