Lacking Integrity in State Government

Mar 20, 2012

First, the bad news: A State Integrity Commission yesterday released a new study of ethics and integrity in state governments across the United States. To quote the New York Times, it found:

“Most states shy away from public scrutiny, fail to enact or enforce ethics laws, and allow corporations and the wealthy a dominant voice in elections and policy decisions.”

That’s the bad news. Now for worse; Michigan is among the worst of the worst.  We are, in fact, one of eight states getting a failing grade, an F, in the study, which was about as above-board as it could be. It  was a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. It found that we have far too few safeguards in a wide range of areas. They include, executive, legislative and judicial accountability. Pension fund management. Political financing and lobbyist disclosure. The enforcement of such ethics policies as we have, and the redistricting process. We got failing grades for all  those.

Michigan did get high marks for its internal auditing system, and a decent grade for the state procurement process.

However, beyond that we seem to be an abysmal failure. Or, as Rich Robinson of the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network marvelously put it, “it appears we are living with an honor system in an environment where there isn’t much honor.”

There’s a lot of evidence that is exactly the case. I have talked before about our bad joke of an abysmal system for reporting campaign finance spending, in which you can pretty much get around any disclosure requirements by producing “issue oriented ads.”

Thanks to that, over the last decade, nearly $70 million worth of campaign ads for state office didn’t have to be disclosed under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.

But there are other problems too. Lobbyists spend tens of millions each year to seduce legislators. Any reporting requirements are a joke. Legislators operate under an “honor system” for deciding when they have a conflict of interest, but it is an honor system without much honor. Former Attorney General Mike Cox reported that in one recent six-year period, there wasn’t a single case when a state senator abstained from a vote because of a conflict of interest. Oh, there is a state ethics board -- but it only covers the executive branch, not the legislative or judicial. And it has no power other than to make recommendations.

This is just a small sample of what’s wrong with the system. But the bottom line is that we haven’t had lawmakers seriously interested in cleaning this up since the Milliken administration.

When this report became public yesterday, Governor Snyder’s head of communications said that right now, legislators had “other things on their plate,” than improving disclosure standards.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to change. This is especially relevant now because Mitt Romney and the other GOP presidential candidates say they’d like to hand over some of the nation’s most important programs, like Medicaid and food stamps, over to the states. Given the ethics and accountability standards revealed in this report, that ought to scare us all.

America has produced crusading good government reformers in the past. We badly need more, right now.