A mixed bag
Democracy may also clash with reform in regard to legislative accountability. Vermont is one of only three states in which lawmakers need not disclose their outside income, and though no polls have been taken on the subject, there is every reason to believe that most Vermonters don’t much mind. Part of that New England reticence is not caring how much your neighbors earn. In Vermont, legislators really are neighbors (there is a lawmaker for every 2,000 or so voters), and folks here seem to like it that way.
Vermont did not score badly in all areas. Thanks to a tradition of transparency in both the executive and legislative branches in regard to money matters (that old New England parsimony), it got an A for its budget process. And when it comes to campaign finance, where both laws and administration have been tightened in the last few years, the state earned a B, the third highest grade in the country.
Elsewhere, though, Vermont’s scores ranged from a barely respectable C- to a deplorable F, including the lowest score of any state when it comes to ethics enforcement. No mystery there. Vermont has no ethics enforcement agency.
Central to all the low scores: a lack of asset disclosure requirements. Neither the governor nor the cabinet secretaries nor judges need make a full disclosure of assets or outside income. The Governor’s Executive Code of Ethics forbids officials from lobbying former colleagues for a year after leaving state employ. But it does not forbid them from going to work for the businesses they have been regulating. Nor does that code apply to the governor — and though it has the force of law, it is not statute. A future governor could simply abolish it, politically foolish (and therefore unlikely) though that would be.
Nor is there any law requiring state agencies to make information available to the public in “open data” format, which allows people to download and sort information. Some do, but it’s up to them.
An ethics commission of some kind may be created next year. Asset disclosure rules could take a little longer; that New England reticence business seems to be as much a part of the landscape here as covered bridges and Jersey cows.
But change seems to be coming, if slowly and reluctantly. Vermont probably still doesn’t have that much to steal. But stealing — as in outright bribery or kickbacks — has never been a problem here. What has changed is that in an increasingly centralized, government-subsidized economy come more opportunities to use government service as a stepping stone, creating the temptation to make decisions benefitting oneself more than the public.
That’s the problem with the modern world. It eventually arrives everywhere — even Vermont.
Update and correction, November 21, 2015, 9:00 a.m.: This article has been updated and corrected to reflect a correction in the data. Vermont is now ranked 37th overall, its auditing score is 73 and a reference to the incorrect data has been edited and clarified.