Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Montana receives poor grade in State Integrity Investigation

Posted By on Tue, Mar 20, 2012 at 4:30 PM

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The Center of Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, gave Montana a D+ grade for its "ambiguous ethics laws, weak disclosure requirements, and inconsistent enforcement" in a new report. The State Integrity Investigation looked at each state's "corruption risk," and handed Montana failing grades in public access to information, judicial accountability, state pension fund management, ethics enforcement agencies, and lobbying disclosure. Montana finished with a 68%, or D+, good enough for 27th out of 50 states. No state received an A.

New Jersey placed first with a B+.

The New York Times editorialized about the report and its overall negative discoveries:

For all the reform talk by many governors and state lawmakers, very little has really changed in most capitals over the decades. Budgeting is still done behind closed doors, and spending decisions are revealed to the public at the last minute. Ethics panels do not bother to meet, or never enforce the conflict-of-interest laws that are on the books. Lobbyists have free access to elected officials, plying them with gifts or big campaign contributions. Open-records acts are shot through with loopholes.

And yet all the Republican presidential candidates think it would be a good idea to hand some of Washington’s most important programs to state governments, which so often combine corruptibility with incompetence.

A detailed explanation of Montana's grade is also available online, written by author and UM journalism professor Dennis Swibold. He provides some valuable historic context to Montana's open government laws, most notably how it seized power from the Copper Kings and crafted a new constitution. He also notes how that past has afforded the state a reputation it doesn't necessarily deserve.

Today Montana enjoys a reputation for open government ... but the reality in Big Sky country doesn’t always match the image, in part because finding money to boost transparency is a tough sell in light of more basic needs like schools and services for the poor.

Partly as a result, access to public records varies by agency and sometimes lags behind advances in information technology. Weak disclosure requirements and inadequate staffing frustrate efforts to monitor lobbying and track the assets of officials responsible for overseeing public funds.

Ethics laws suffer from ambiguity and weak enforcement, and a rash of top-level hires by the current administration has raised questions of cronyism.

Swibold's summary should be required reading — if for no other reason, it explains how on earth Montana could ever rank lower than New Jersey in anything.

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