State Integrity Investigation brings calls for reform as legislative sessions approach

Legislators, 'good government' groups, editorials criticize low grades, lack of transparency

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The Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston, in January 2014.

Steven Senne/AP

As the kickoff of state legislative sessions approaches in January, the State Integrity Investigation is yielding calls for change from lawmakers, good-government advocates and editorial boards across the country.

In Massachusetts, the House passed an overhaul of the state’s public records law last month, for example, while lawmakers elsewhere have just begun announcing reform proposals for the upcoming sessions.

The investigation, published in November, is a data-driven ranking and assessment of each state’s transparency and anti-corruption measures conducted by the Center and Global Integrity. No state earned better than a C grade.

In several states, publication of poor grades coincided with ethics scandals that have prompted a growing number of political leaders to call for a transformation in how business is done in state capitals. In New York, for example, a series of recent corruption cases culminated this fall with convictions of the former leaders of both the state Senate and Assembly.

Days after the release of the State Integrity Investigation, a coalition of New York advocacy groups issued a press release citing both the lawmakers’ trials and the state’s D- grade to call for substantive ethics reforms. A pair of state legislators, including Assemblyman Michael Montesano, a Republican, did the same. “The great people of New York deserve far better than a D- rated government,” Montesano said in a release.

After trials of both former Senate leader Dean G. Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ended in convictions just in the past few weeks, more officials joined the chorus. Earlier this month, a group of Independent Democrats in the state Senate said they would renew their push for the adoption of a set of ethics and campaign finance reforms that have failed to pass in recent years. And on Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would propose several measures next year on campaign finance and public records laws.

Meanwhile, some 1,500 miles to the west, a group called South Dakotans for Ethics Reform submitted more than 25,000 signatures in November to place a measure on the 2016 ballot that would limit lobbyist gifts, strengthen campaign finance disclosures and create in independent ethics commission. South Dakota received an F from the State Integrity Investigation, ranking 47th overall. In a column in the Argus Leader, the group’s co-chairmen, Don Frankenfeld and Rick Weiland, said that the grade “should be setting off alarm bells.” The campaign initially grew out of the first State Integrity Investigation, published in 2012, which also gave South Dakota an F.

Over the past month, dozens of newspaper editorial boards across the country have reacted to the State Integrity Investigation with calls for reform, including the Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Seattle Times, Miami Herald and many others.

The Washington Post called for “sustained pressure” on state officials to implement greater transparency and stronger ethics laws. “Anyone who cares about good government will be stunned by the extent to which states lack rules to minimize conflicts of interest, insider deals between lawmakers and lobbyists, and outsize influence for deep-pocketed special interests,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.

The Santa Fe New Mexican lamented New Mexico’s D- grade, writing that the state “doesn’t have to remain mired in the muck of unethical behavior and weak laws.” Less than two weeks later, a group of House Democrats announced plans to introduce a package of ethics bills in the 2016 session, which will last just 30 days. At a news conference, House Minority Leader Brian Egolf told reporters that the recent guilty plea of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, for embezzling campaign funds, pushed the group to seek an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance and lobbyist reporting system and to create an independent ethics commission.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Tennessee have said their state report cards highlight the need for changes, while officials in several others have said they plan to discuss in their ethics committees or commissions just how they might improve their state’s grade.

In Massachusetts — which earned an F in the category for public access to information in both the first and second State Integrity Investigations — advocacy groups and editorial boards have seized on the grades as part of a campaign to transform the open records law. Good-government groups have said the bill passed by the House in November contains some improvements, such as introducing the possibility for those wrongly denied records to recover legal fees, but also some steps backwards, such as codifying a longer deadline for agencies to comply with requests.

“There has been a growing consensus and now I think it is really understood across the board that our public records law is broken,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who has lobbied to pass a bill. Wolfe said he’s optimistic the Senate and House can work together to pass a strong law next year, and that citizens in a state so proud of its universities don’t like the idea of getting a failing grade. “I think that, together with a commitment from our local press and organizing by advocates, has really come together to get our policy makers to take this seriously.”

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