In 2013, the director of the Idaho Racing Commission told state lawmakers that controversial “instant racing” machines could help save the state’s dying betting industry. He did not tell them he was also registered as a lobbyist in Wyoming on behalf of a company that operates the machines there. That detail didn’t come to light until January, when a reporter at the Idaho Statesman unearthed the potential conflict. The official resigned within days, but apparently broke no laws or rules because he had told his superiors about his employment.
That’s right. A state official worked for a company in an industry he oversaw. Lawmakers apparently didn’t know about the relationship. And technically, there was nothing wrong with that. This situation is not as rare as you might think.
Across the country, state lawmakers and agency officials operate with glaring conflicts of interest and engage in brazenly cozy relationships with lobbyists. Ethics and open records laws are riddled with loopholes, while the watchdogs meant to enforce them face crippling shortages of cash and staff. Those are the findings of the new State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven ranking and assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
Alaska received the top grade, earning a C. Only two others — California and Connecticut — earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades, with Michigan coming in last. The rankings and grades are based on detailed answers to 245 questions that were researched by experienced reporters in each state. The queries are divided into 13 categories — from public access to information to campaign finance to ethics enforcement — and deal not only with the laws but also how well they’re enforced or implemented.
The results are deeply troubling. In most states, entire branches of government or agencies claim exemptions from open records laws. In two-thirds of all states, ethics oversight entities regularly fail to initiate investigations or impose sanctions. The laws or rules that govern when lawmakers should abstain from voting based on conflicts of interest are often hopelessly vague, and legislators sometimes ignore them anyway.
“Many of these laws are out of date, they need to be revised,” said Robert Stern, who was president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which worked with state and local governments on ethics and disclosure laws until it closed in 2011. Stern is now helping draft a ballot measure in California to update the state’s campaign finance and ethics laws. “It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them and they don’t want to fund people enforcing them.”
It may be tempting to write off corruption in state government as small-time, little more than fodder for racy headlines and tasteless jokes. But in fact, state legislatures pass thousands of bills a year and collect and disburse more than $1 trillion. Indeed, gridlock and partisanship in Washington D.C. have pushed a majority of Americans to turn to state and local government for solutions to the country’s problems, according to a recent poll. Given the findings of the State Integrity Investigation, that’s a worrisome prospect.