The Center for Public Integrity went full frontal with its scathing review of the institutionalized corruption in American state governments.
Failing Grades and Alaska’s Gold Medal
CPI’s comprehensive analysis gave states letter grades on 13 categories across areas involving accountability, financing, fund allocation, lobbyism, internal auditing and public transparency. The good news is that Alaska took first place in something other than being fucking freezing for the first time. The bad news is that it did so by earning a “C” grade.
A total of 11 states, including last-placed Michigan, received failing scores, and it’s not hard to see why from the report’s anecdotal highlight reel of doom neatly aggregated by Vice.
A Missouri official drove home a bill banning any bans on plastic bags in supermarkets, while simultaneously serving as director of the Missouri Grocer’s Association. Not to be outdone, lawmakers from Mike Huckabee’s Willy Wonka Factory of Gravy in Arkansas undermined a bill meant to regulate gifts from lobbyists by adding a food and drink loophole. Finally, politicians from Heisenberg’s home state of New Mexico successfully rallied to exclude emails from public record laws because they are the ones who knock.
CPI’s takeaway? “Corruption, influence peddling, and a lack of government accountability are in fact very difficult to prevent across all 50 states.” Indeed.
What Would You Say…Ya Do Here?
Greedy lawmakers abusing positions of power for personal gain isn’t breaking news. The infection festers though, when the publicly operated mechanisms for accountability lack any functionality due to shortcomings in funding and staffing.
To wit, look no further than the state of Kansas. One of the 11 states with a red “F” on its forehead, Kansas’ Governmental Ethics Commission is as useful as a torn sail. The group is so short-staffed that all it can do is ensure that public officials fill out their financial disclosure forms, without actually reviewing the forms for accuracy or possible violations.
“Whether they are correct or not, we don’t know,” Executive Director Carol Williams told CPI.
Press Pass Please
Since states are showing an inability to properly hold themselves accountable, the logical solution is to look to journalists and the press to take governments to task. Again, this is another method that has totally broken down, with 44 states receiving a failing grade when it comes to public disclosure.
While every state has laws that require them to respond to requests for public records, officials have effectively used regulation to create a series of dead ends via loopholes and bureaucratic drudgery.
CPI cites David Cuillier, Director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, stating, “substantial research shows that the nation’s open records laws have been poked and prodded to include a sprawling list of exemptions and impediments, and that public officials increasingly use those statutes to deny access to records.”
For an example, look no further than the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Puritan’s camping ground gave reporter George LeVines a quote of $130,000 to process his public records request about drug seizures in prisons.
Silver Linings and the 21st Century
Obviously, this report seems to suggest that Uncle Sam has broken down into some kind of morally bankrupt cowboy with the body odor of stale roadkill. While that may be true, the report does offer some no-brainer methods for improvement as well.
Most obviously, adequately funded independent oversight auditors are absolutely crucial in holding state government’s accountable. Without such review boards, any kind of caps on gifts or disclosures of perks for family members (like those instituted in Georgia and Virginia) lack the necessary enforcement.
We also need to enact drastic changes when it comes to the government’s handling of public records. Similar to independent auditing bodies, states should follow Iowa’s lead by creating independent review boards that mediate disputes over public records request. They should then follow up on this by joining us in the 21st century and digitizing their massive stack of public records that sit in filing cabinets collecting dust and taking up space.
As is typically the case when trying to hold bureaucrats accountable, it’s going to take a groundswell of sustained popular effort to bring transparency to the opaque inner-workings of our state governments.
Robert Stern, formerly the long-time president of the Center for Governmental Studies, told CPI, “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 the people enforcing them.”
If we want a government we can be proud of, it means we may need to drag politicians out of the shade and into the sunlight, even if they’re kicking and screaming along the way.