In November 2014, Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure that, among other reforms, barred the state’s elected officials from accepting lobbyists’ gifts.
But that hasn’t stopped influence peddlers from continuing to provide meals to lawmakers at the luxurious Capital Hotel or in top Little Rock eateries like the Brave New Restaurant; the prohibition does not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited,” so lobbyists can buy meals so long as they invite an entire legislative committee.
Such loopholes are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
The comprehensive probe found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.
Take the Missouri lawmaker who introduced a bill this year — which passed despite a veto by the governor — to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores. The state representative cited concern for shoppers, but also happens to be state director of the Missouri Grocers Association, and is just one of several lawmakers in the state who pushed bills that synced with their private interests.
Or the lobbyist who, despite a $50 cap on gifts to Idaho state lawmakers, spent $2,250 in 2013 to host a state senator and his wife at the annual Governors Cup charity golf tournament in Sun Valley; the prohibition does not apply to such lobbying largess as long as the money is not spent “in return for action” on a particular bill.
In Delaware, the Public Integrity Commission, which oversees lobbying and ethics laws for the executive branch there, has just two full-time employees. A 2013 report by a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”
And in New Mexico, lawmakers passed a resolution in 2013 declaring that their emails are exempt from public records laws — a rule change that did not require the governor’s signature. “I think it’s up to me to decide if you can have my record," one representative said.
These are among the practices illuminated by the State Integrity Investigation, which measured hundreds of variables to compile transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states. The results are nothing short of stunning.
The best grade in the nation, which went to Alaska, is just a C. Only two others earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades. The findings may be deflating to the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent poll, now look to the states for policy solutions as gridlock and partisanship.
The top of the pack includes bastions of progressive government, including California (ranked 2nd with a C-), and states notorious for corrupt pasts (Connecticut, 3rd with a C-, and Rhode Island, 5th with a D+). In those New England states, scandals led to significant reforms and relatively robust ethics laws, even if dubious dealings linger in the halls of government.
The bottom includes many western states that champion limited government, like Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.
The results are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. Franzese said that, with many states still struggling financially, ethics oversight in particular is among the last issues to receive funding.
“It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.
With a few notable exceptions, there has been little progress on these issues since the State Integrity Investigation was first carried out, in 2012. In fact, most scores have dropped since then, though some of that is due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology.
When first conducted in 2011-2012, the State Integrity Investigation was an unprecedented look at the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur.
Overall, states scored notably worse in this second round. Some of that decline is because of changes to the project, such as the addition of questions asking about “open data” policies, which call on governments to publish information online in formats that are easy to download and analyze.
But the drop also reflects moves toward greater secrecy in some states. “Across the board, accessing government has always been, but is increasingly, a barrier to people from every reform angle,” said Jenny Rose Flanagan, vice president for state operations at Common Cause, a national advocacy group with chapters in most states.
No state saw its score fall farther than New Jersey, where scandal after scandal seems to have complicated Gov. Chris Chrise’s presidential aspirations deep into the muck of the state's brawling, back-scratching political history.
New Jersey earned a B+, the best score in the nation, in 2012 — shocking just about anyone familiar with the state's politics — thanks to tough ethics and anti-corruption laws that had been passed over the previous decade in response to a series of scandals.
None of that has changed. But journalists, advocates and academics have accused the Christie administration of fighting and delaying potentially damaging public records requests and meddling in the affairs of the State Ethics Commission.
That's on top of Bridgegate, the sprawling scandal that began as a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge but has led to the indictments so far of one of the governor’s aides and two of his appointees — one of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges — and even to the resignations of top executives at United Airlines. As a result of these scandals and others New Jersey dropped to 19th place overall with a D grade.