In 2008, when The Pew Center on the States graded Utah with an A− for government performance, state politicians had something to cheer about. The glowing mark helped mask the unsightly D− Utah garnered for campaign finance disclosure in a national survey called the Campaign Disclosure Project.
But now, according to the State Integrity Investigation, there are new reasons for concern. The Beehive State ranks 36th among the states, with a grade of D and a numerical score of 65 according to the integrity probe, a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
That score, coupled with the mixed messages of the earlier study, raises the question: Is Utah’s boasting of being a “best managed state” in danger of erosion amid the explosion of money in politics? And, does this state of 2.8 million residents have the safeguards to prevent lasting problems?
"Just as we reveled in high marks from Pew for good governance and Forbes for businesses, we also must take [this] poor grade as a call for the state to look at model laws and possibilities for improvements," said Kirk Jowers, chair of the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy.
Utah government has no public records ombudsman and no independent, statewide ethics agency, although the 2012 legislature did pass a bill creating a new ethics board for local governments. The state has limited asset disclosure requirements for public officials, and no requirement for lobbyists to report their compensation.
"While the State of Utah has made some significant strides in the right direction, especially with regard to budgets and audits, there are areas where we can improve and we are committed to working on those areas," said GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, in a statement released by his spokesperson.
Former Republican lawmaker David Irvine, an attorney with Utahns for Ethical Government, said the issue “goes beyond the symbolism of a letter grade. The purpose of ethics laws is to keep honest people honest, and to give voters confidence that their government is acting for the benefit of all of us." Utah is tied for the very bottom in the State Integrity Investigation’s rankings on ethics enforcement.