North America Procurement Council Procurement News

Survey: We Have The Best State Governments Money Can Buy

November 21, 2015

For all its public positioning as the land of the free and the home of the incorruptible, government at all levels within the United States seems to operate more than ever as a place where you can pass any law you want as long as you have enough money to influence the politicians.

The bad news is this is no longer about politics just at the level of the U.S. Government. The corruption has now moved to the states in a very big way.  Yes, the plague of infighting, partisan politics, and lobbyist-driven voting has now made it to every state in the nation, with all the consequences we can only begin to imagine.  And what’s worst is it’s happening within a cocoon of laws states have passed that make it appear they are being even more open and honest than ever before.

Take some examples:

A year ago Arkansas voters voted into law a measure that on the surface sounded good, by banning elected officials from taking gifts of any kind from lobbyists.  This includes even being invited for lunch or dinner with a lobbyist, with the idea that such things – especially in some of the fancier establishments – might just turn one’s head. Sounds good so far. But a loophole was carefully woven into the law that it will not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited.” So it is apparently okay to bribe politicians in this manner as long as you bribe them ALL in this way at the same time. In Idaho there is a law that seems good on the surface also, one that has a $50 limit on gifts to state lawmakers. The loophole there is that if the money is not spent on a specific “return for action”, then having the legislatures take as much as the want is okay. In this case a glaring example was a state senator and his wife receiving support of over $2,000 to go to a charity golf tournament in Sun Valley

In other realms, legislators openly proclaim they will step back if there are conflicts of interest of any kind.  Yet in Missouri, for example, when a law passed that prohibited the banning of plastic bags in the cities, a law that even survived a veto, the state representative who pushed for the law turned out to be the current (not past) state director of the Missouri Grocers Association.  So far from being a law representing the people, the state representative was even directly getting support from a group that actively conflicts with their interests in this manner. But even if wrongdoing might happen that is actionable and not covered by loopholes, the states also conspire to make it close to impossible to investigate things properly.  In Delaware, for example, as of 2013 the Public Integrity Commission which oversees lobbying only had two full-time members to do the work.  And even though openness of public records might seem to be the way to further other investigations, New Mexico – again just as one example – has a regulation in place that all emails are exempt from public records scrutiny.  So the most obvious place to look for evidence of conspiracy is explicitly exempt from any public review.

The latest survey on Public Integrity in State Government is quite damning.  Alaska had the best grade overall, but even their grade was just a C on a scale from A for the best to F for the worst.  Two states earned a D+, and 11 were graded as F.

Of these, the best include progressive California, the second highest ranked state (with a C- ranking), along with Connecticut and Rhode Island. At the bottom were Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming, Maine, and Delaware (also and probably not coincidentally the center for incorporation laws that protect companies from suit while benefitting Delaware the state forever). Michigan, with few ethics and open records laws, came in at the very bottom of the rankings.

The good things that have been happening in state government in the last few years include 12 states aggressively pursuing ethics and corruption, with the result that many political leaders in those states have been forced out of office.  New York was ranked number one in this aspect, with 14 lawmakers having left because of ethical and/or criminal issues.

The citizens of Georgia, in 2012 listed as the worst state in the nation in the same survey, took charge of their situation by implementing a law that limited lobbyists’ gifts to $75 for public officials.  That, plus intense enforcement of other laws, moved Georgia from the very bottom then to number 6 in the latest survey.

In Idaho the budget process is now fully open to the public, with debates and voting available for all to attend in person.  If anyone who wants to watch is unable to attend they can watch the budgeting process stream online from anywhere.

And in New York the state comptroller’s office is set up with strong funding and heavily isolated from political influence by both the governor as well as the legislature.  It is in such an environment that with the right people an audit such as was recently completed found some $500 million in the state’s Medicaid program.

Those are some bright spots in an unfortunately overall declining set of rankings.  But as the evidence above shows, the combination of rankings like were made in this current study along with citizen action can make a major difference.

Those interested in seeing the entire study can find it here.