A new report by the State Integrity Investigation reveals that while most states promise sunshine, there’s plenty of shade in which rogue officials can hide their misdeeds.
“State officials make lofty promises when it comes to ethics in government. They tout the transparency of legislative processes, accessibility of records, and the openness of public meetings. But these efforts often fall short of providing any real transparency or legitimate hope of rooting out corruption,” the effort’s report finds. The investigation combined the forces of three nonprofits — the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
State Integrity Investigation handed out letter grades. No state earned an A, and only five — California, Connecticut, Nebraska, New Jersey and Washington — earned B’s. Alabama was among the 19 states receiving a C; 18 were awarded D’s. The remaining eight states — Georgia, Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming — flunked. (See accompanying box for examples from the report.)
One consistent flaw was that states are not keeping up with advancements in the digital space. While more information is going online, many states are presenting it in forms that are difficult to share and make relevant comparisons.
Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, called it hiding in plain sight. He added,
“Governments say, ‘here it is,’ but they don’t tell the story.”
One Maryland activist speaking about his state’s online databases could have been referencing many more, including Alabama’s, when he noted, “You can only look at it particle by particle, atom by atom.” For those lawmakers who frequently claim government should be run like a business, this is an area for improvement. Very few businesses the size of the typical state government could reasonably expect to remain competitive with clunky and incomplete websites.
Alabamians can be encouraged by its C-minus grade, which ranked 15th in the nation. Improvements in disclosure and enforcement of ethics laws passed by the Republican-majority Legislature in late 2010 and 2011 pulled up Alabama’s grade. That’s commendable, and yet the state has more work to do.
The purpose of these laws is not to assume every public official is corrupt. They guard against corruption as well as the appearance of corruption. They are tools used to reassure the public.