State Integrity Investigation

Keeping Government Honest

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Why corruption matters in U.S. states

In late 2009 I was catching up at a Starbucks with Bill Buzenberg, the Executive Director at the Center for Public Integrity. I told Bill about some of the interesting research Global Integrity was doing at the municipal, state, regional, and provincial level in a number of countries. But I was frustrated, I said, by the lack of good data here in the United States about how state governments were actually set up when it came to anti-corruption enforcement and deterrence. It was easier for Global Integrity to find teams of qualified researchers in, say, Peru to assess region-level transparency and governance than it was to put together a similar effort in the U.S. states.

I worried that much of the attention in the U.S. at the state level had become too siloed and focused on particular pet rock issue areas: freedom of information, money in politics, open data, and state budgets to name a few. Was anyone looking at the whole picture? Did we have any idea which states were “hardwired to fail” when it came to corruption and governance?

“No,” Bill said. “But let’s fix that.” And thus the State Integrity Investigation was born.

Today marks an important milestone with respect to the pioneering State Integrity Investigation: we are making pre-publication data — all 16,500 data points — available to the public to comment on, raise questions about, and share more than a month before the “official” publication of the project results.

Why did the project partners decide to open ourselves up to this level of scrutiny? It might be helpful to review the history of how this incredible effort came to be.

Global Integrity, one of the three core partners of the State Integrity Investigation, has spent the better part of a decade tracking governance and corruption trends globally, including in North America. We’ve helped to pioneer some of the more innovative ways of assessing corruption risks and anti-corruption mechanisms at the national and sub-national levels in more than 120 countries by combining journalistic reporting with social science data gathering.

Along the way, we built some technology to help us gather and publish that information more efficiently, which explains how a staff of less than 15 spread across two continents has published more than 10 million words of text and more than 100,000 data points without going absolutely crazy. Those efforts have led to real change in a number of countries by providing both government and non-governmental organizations with solid information that can be used for evidence-based policymaking.

Early on in the project brainstorming, we made several important decisions that are already impacting the public uptake of this project:

  • We wanted to invest many months into talking to the country’s leading experts and advocates focused on state government before developing our methodology. Seventy-five interviews later we had the project’s 330 Integrity Indicators.
  • We wanted to work with the best and brightest experts we could find in each state to gather those data, and that meant recruiting leading statehouse reporters in every state.
  • We wanted to open the research and reporting process up to the public to ensure our results were as balanced and as accurate as possible. We made early decisions to publish the names of all of the lead reporters in each state, to find engaged and informed citizens to help review the draft data, and to (today) make pre-publication data available for public feedback before the official project launch. Many of those decisions were novel for Global Integrity, and we are anxiously awaiting early feedback to see whether some of this project’s experimental techniques can be applied to other efforts.

After all of the hard work by the reporters, project managers, editors, and online community team, a simple reality remains truer than ever: corruption matters in the states because it impacts people’s lives. Your state budgets are broken in part because governments have given too many tax breaks to special interests that fund politicians’ campaigns. Your roads are crumbling because tenders for infrastructure projects often go to politically connected companies, not those with the most competitive pricing or highest quality. Your elected leaders often operate with impunity because of broken information request systems, gutted state ethics commissions, and patronage controlled civil services.

For all of the attention paid in the past fifteen years to the crisis in governance at the national level in the United States — from Lincoln Bedroom scandals to Enron to McCain-Feingold, Citizens United, and Super PACs — we still struggle to understand whether things are better or worse at the state level. That’s what we hope this project will answer.

See your state’s corruption risk report card and email it your legislators. Together, we can inspire reform.

— Nathaniel Heller is the Executive Director of Global Integrity.

Filed under corruption reform legislation open government Transparency global integrity iWatch center for public integrity public radio international pri

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Bill Gates Talks State Budgets & Corruption on TED

America’s school systems are funded by the 50 states. In this fiery talk, Bill Gates says that state budgets are riddled with accounting tricks that disguise the true cost of health care and pensions and weighted with worsening deficits — with the financing of education at the losing end.

Click the image to see Bill Gates deliver a fiery TED Talks presentation:
Bill_Gates_Corruption_TED_Talks.jpg

We’ve published government corruption risk report cards for each state. The associated data reflects scoring for the questions we asked as we investigated corruption risk across 14 categories of government in all 50 US States.

The report cards for each State are complete with letter grades, State ranking among all 50 States, as well as detailed supporting comments and references. Sign up to receive updates on legislation reforms.

We can all take it upon ourselves to make change. Use the data and the corruption risk report cards to work with your State government officials to address the policy and practice issues that lead to power abuse, corruption and damaging societal issues that affect all of us. You can email your state’s report card to your legislators by clicking on link at the top of your state’s report card.

Filed under bill gates corruption scandal education Campaign Finance executive accountability Transparency open government open data

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State Integrity Investigation raises questions about good government

By Gary Childress

Global Integrity’s research on corruption laws with state by state ranking certainly did bring questions in my mind.  I do understand that the research did not attempt to locate corruption but only looked at the structure to protect against corruption. One would expect a correlation between good corruption prevention structure and sound management and fiscal results.  Quite the reverse appears to be the case.

Recently 24/7 Wall St. published a study of the best-run statesWyoming was number one, Nebraska number two and if my memory serves me correctly the Dakotas were near the top.  The states at or near the top of Global Integrity’s list were typically the worst run states.

The various municipal credit rating organizations to the most part rate the bottom of the Global Integrity list higher credit than the top.  In fact most of the states with severe credit risk are near the top of Global’s ranking.  Why is there not a correlation?

I am not challenging your research, quite the reverse.  The fact that it leaves a question proves its merit.  As stated above: Why is there not a correlation?  This could be the question of another study.  The answers might be helpful to all states. 

There are likely many things going on other than the legal structure.  What are they?

Gary Childress is a retired businessman who divides his time between Wyoming and Connecticut.

You can email your state’s corruption risk report to your legislators card here.

Filed under PRI global integrity government iwatch nebraska open government politics transparency wyoming

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Ohio Democrats demand transparency task force in response to D grade

By Caitlin Ginley

Citing the Buckeye State’s D grade from the State Integrity Investigation, Democratic legislators in Ohio have called for a bipartisan task force to review current ethics laws and consider new legislation to strengthen accountability and transparency.

“We have a responsibility to the people of Ohio and it is simply unacceptable for us to fail to ensure government is working for Ohioan’s best interest at all times, not for special interest or influences,” said Rep. Jay Goyal (D-Mansfield), in a press conference held Tuesday.

In a letter to legislative leaders, the House Democrats noted “great concern over the recent ethics report from the State Integrity Investigation.”

Among the 14 categories on the state scorecard, they pointed out, Ohio only received two grades higher than a C-. The state failed three categories: legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure and redistricting.

Ohio also received D - grades for executive accountability and judicial accountability, D+ grades for pension fund management and insurance commissions, and C- grades for public access to information, political financing, procurement, and ethics enforcement. Rep. Ted Celeste (D-Grandview Heights) said the grades are not something to be proud of, especially since the state received F’s in a few individual categories.

“We should do everything we can to improve our efforts here,” he said.

In addition to its call for new legislation, the letter also asked for reconsideration of some earlier proposals. Celeste said House Democrats have previously put forth legislation that would address some of the gaps in Ohio’s ethics laws, but those bills have not received serious consideration. Celeste and his colleagues are calling for hearings on those measures, which include proposed new regulations on independent expenditures by corporations and unions and creation of a public financing system for judicial elections.

Those hearings would be held when the legislature returns from spring recess. Another bill would require that records of public-private partnerships, a growing trend in Ohio, be made available to the public. Rep. Matt Lundy (D-Elyria), who sponsored the bill, said these entities – like JobsOhio, a semi-private agency focused on economic development – spend state dollars but are not currently subject to the state’s open record laws.

“It’s hard to keep track of where the money is going,” Lundy said. “If you can’t follow the dollars, you can’t keep track of accountability.”

The fate of the Democrats’ recommendations seems uncertain at best. A spokesman for the Republican House speaker, William Batchelder, told the Columbus Dispatch that the speaker takes transparency and accountability seriously, but questioned the “flawed methodology” of the State Integrity Investigation. The GOP controls both the state House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office. Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, said he stands by the State Integrity Investigation’s methodology and reporting.

If you want your elected officials to take action, send them your state’s report card. Click on the “E-mail this score to your state official” button, and the report card will automatically fill in the e-mail address for your governor and state legislators. Connect with the leaders in your state, and get your report card to the people who represent you.

(Photo credit: Alexander Smith.)

Filed under corruption ohio politics open data open government republican house speaker columbus dispatch transparency accountability center for public integrity global integrity PRI

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Improving “customer service” in Michigan: Comprehensive ethics package proposed

Governor Rick Snyder thinks the state of Michigan has some unfinished business. In his Jan. 18 State of the State address, Snyder (pictured, right) told the legislature that 2011 was a good year for the state, but said 2012 should be dedicated to “really making this year about good government.”

 “It’s not about ‘big government’ or ‘small government,’” Snyder said. “It’s about good government, government doing the right thing for the right reasons, and giving you, our citizens, great customer service.”

Without going into great detail, Snyder laid out a plan to reform state laws on lobbying, campaign finance and ethics regulations.  A statement calling for “more frequent and better disclosure of campaign contributions” and greater scrutiny of state contracting resulted in sustained applause from almost the entire legislature. And apparently, just after they stopped clapping, Democratic legislators took out their pens.

Earlier this month, the Democratic caucus announced an ambitious plan to overhaul state ethics and campaign finance laws. In total, the package includes 16 separate bills and one constitutional amendment which cover a range of issues, including lobbying, financial disclosure of elected officials, and increased transparency in campaign advertising.

Several pieces of the proposal had previously made it through the state House of Representatives with bipartisan support only to die in the senate, said State  Representative Kate Segal. According to Segal (pictured, right) Snyder’s pronouncements at the State of the State helped inspire renewed attempts at reform.

“We’re hoping to have the governor’s support in pushing this forward,” Segal said. “It is long overdue for the state of Michigan.”

Segal blames the legislature’s continued inactivity on the sheer number of bills. The 16 bills will progress one at a time, and Segal said the Democratic caucus is willing to work with their Republican colleagues “to make them stronger.”

One bill would force greater transparency in “robo-calls,” the commonly employed tool that keeps potential voters’ phones buzzing with automated messages in the days before a referendum or an election. Under the proposed reform, a robo-call message would need to state the name of the organization that funded the call.

The proposed constitutional amendment, included with the bills in the reform package, would increase lobbying and political donation disclosure of corporations, and ban the awarding of $100,000-plus contracts to vendors which have made political donations.  While more demanding than simply changing a law – a constitutional amendment requires passage by a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate and ratification by Michigan voters – Segal said the change is a way to restrict the influence of the “millions and now billions being spent in our elections.”

“I have constituents say to me, ‘How am I going to make a difference without that kind of money?’” Segal said. “I think what these bills do, they say, yes there’s money in elections, but they allow constituents to find out where the money is coming from.”

(Source: stateintegrity.org)

Filed under ethics michigan politics rick snyder Transparency open government Campaign Finance lobby disclosure

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Play without pay: Rhode Island’s plan to take politics out of state contracts

Rhode Island’s history of lawmakers and state contractors getting too cozy? Blame geography and population.

“Rhode Island is a very small state,” said Rep. Michael Marcello (D-Dist. 41). “There has always been a close relationship between contractors and the state government. Not because they are necessarily nefarious – just because there’s not a lot of people who are bidding on these things.”

Even if the two sides are on friendly terms, Marcello wants to make sure the relationship doesn’t come at a price. Marcello has sponsored a bill that prohibits state contractors from donating money to the campaigns of officials controlling the contract.  If approved, the legislation would mean any company that receives more than $5,000 in state contracts annually could not donate to a campaign for a candidate who leads a state entity responsible for that contract.

The bill mirrors regulations already in place in other states, and was introduced at the request of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, who worked with Marcello to craft the language. Marcello said the bill will mostly affect the executive branch, which awards most of the state’s larger contracts.

Marcello (pictured, right) said he’s never personally witnessed what would qualify as a pay-for-play incident in state government, though he didn’t rule out the possibility. But, perhaps as troubling, he said companies looking to do business with the state might feel obligated to donate.

“I think there’s a perception that if you want to be taken seriously, or want to be considered as someone who is able to get these bids, you have to be someone who is connected politically,” Marcello said. “This bill is designed to make [bidding] more transparent, number one – and number two, just to kind of remove any doubt about it.”

One lobbyist has already voiced his opposition privately to Marcello, telling the representative that his bill was an infringement on free speech. So far, Marcello said courts have been lenient in allowing campaign finance restrictions as they relate to government contracts, though he said the free speech issue is a “legitimate constitutional question.”

“But I also think there’s an overriding concern here,” Marcello said. “I’m a lawyer, so I don’t ever like to say you’re sacrificing free speech rights. But I think there are times when there’s a necessary restriction that’s in the public interest.”

(Source: stateintegrity.org)

Filed under procurement corruption rhode island politics scandal Transparency open government open data