Colorado is not a state with a tradition of scandal-scarred government. Its governors don't tumble from power in disgrace, and indictments of lawmakers and lobbyists aren’t the norm.
Periodic instances of impropriety do occur, largely at the local level. And just last year, Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission fined a sitting statewide public official for the first time ever after finding that then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler had used public money for personal and political gain. Only one state lawmaker has pleaded guilty to public corruption in the past two years.
By-and-large, government under the gold dome of the capitol in Denver is seen as largely sleaze-free. “Colorado politics,” said Mike Littwin, a longtime political columnist here, “are boringly clean.”
There is, however, a stark difference between not having a reputation for public corruption and not being at risk for it.
Yes, there is good news on the accountability front: Colorado has a transparent state budget process, generally accountable executive and legislative branches, and a robust, well-staffed office of the State Auditor.
But then there’s the risk: government here has ways to keep public information secret. Gift reports, personal financial disclosures, and money-in-politics filings of politicians and judges are not audited for compliance. The state's ethics commission, staffed with a single professional, is understaffed, under-funded, and lacks independence: it relies on the attorney general's office for legal counsel — even though that office is also subject to the commission’s oversight.
On the enforcement side in the Centennial State, it is citizens who must prosecute complaints against public officials whom they believe have acted improperly. Citizens must also pay their own way through the court system to prove public wrongdoing while public officials accused of malfeasance can rely on public money for their defense.
And so Colorado received an overall grade of D+ and a numerical score of 67, ranking it 13th nationally (tied with Illinois) in the State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. While the score is nearly identical to the one given in 2012, the scores are not directly comparable because of changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that occurs only once every 10 years.