By Peg Perl*
Many of us know state government is often the better venue for a particular court case or legislative initiative. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis praised states as “laborator[ies]” of democracy. Earlier this year, a poll found that over 60% of Americans thought state and local government were more likely to provide better policy solutions than Congress. But we must trust in the integrity and transparency of a laboratory if we are going to abide by its results. According to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, none of the fifty state governments deserve that trust.
The State Integrity Investigation is a data-driven analysis conducted by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) which looks at state government transparency and accountability. The goal of this grueling inquiry, conducted in partnership with state-based journalists, is to highlight areas that lead to decreased citizen confidence in government and increased risk of corruption. The review was first completed in 2012, and this fall, CPI released an updated analysis showing little progress. CPI looks at the laws on the books as well as how they operate in practice for thirteen categories, including public access to information, laws governing political financing and government ethics, transparency in budgeting and financial processes, and lobbyist disclosures.
The results are uniformly bad. The “winner” is Alaska, which scored the report’s highest grade: a C. In fact, only three states scored better than a D+ (California and Connecticut each received a C-). Eleven states failed altogether, with Michigan officially placing last.
What’s going on here? CPI sums it up as “feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggl[ing] to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.” Loopholes in campaign disclosure laws, vast exceptions to public records access, and chronic underfunding of enforcement agencies by the legislatures they oversee mean that there are few actual safeguards against corruption in state government despite forty years of reform laws since Watergate. My state, Colorado, received a D+ based in large part on: (1) the lack of an appeals process when a government agency refuses to disclose a public record; and (2) an ethics commission whose budget has been kept so small that it has hardly ever had more than a single paid employee to police and advise almost all state and county legislative and executive branches.
This is the kind of report card that should trigger a parent-teacher conference. As lawyers, we are officers of the law and representatives of the government to many citizens. We work with these institutions for substantive change through legislation and litigation on significant issues ranging from air quality to zoning. We need to be able to trust our state governments. We also have a duty to use our position within the law to work for social change to help improve society. See how your state scored and what you can do to help fix it. Maybe our laboratories won’t fail the next inspection.
* Peg Perl is Senior Counsel at Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization.