Opinion and Forefront

FARGO: State government integrity scores average

May 19, 2012

Anthony FargoIn my chosen profession, May is the month when we turn in final grades for the spring semester, and say goodbye to graduating students and so long to the rest of the student body.

My colleagues and I aren’t the only ones who have been dishing out evaluations of performance lately. A report on the integrity of Indiana government was released with little fanfare recently. Maybe Indiana is trying to hide its grade from the parents (that would be us).

The State Integrity Investigation was conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International with funding from the Omidyar Network, the Rita Allen Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Wyncote Foundation. To learn more about the project and the groups associated with it, go to stateintegrity.org.

(I should note that my friend and colleague Gerry Lanosga wrote the Indiana portion of the final report, and he also quoted me in regard to the state access-to-information laws.)

The people involved in the project used standard reporting techniques, data collection, and data analysis to rate the states on 330 “integrity indicators” in 14 categories, including public access to information, political financing, accountability in all three branches, budget processes, lobbying disclosures and ethics enforcement. The report, unlike some others like it, examined both the laws as written and how the laws were enforced.

So how did Indiana do? The project came up with a score of 70, a C-, which put Indiana 22nd among all 50 states. We trailed, believe it or not, Illinois and Louisiana, among others.

If might sound a bit counterintuitive that some of the states that scored highest on the index—no one got an A, but there were some B’s and a lot of C’s—also led the country in number of officials convicted for corruption-related offenses. But the project organizers have a theory—convictions show that the system is working in finding corruption and punishing it.

Indiana did well in terms of judicial accountability, state budget transparency, newer ethics rules for lawmakers and lobbyists, and the creation of an inspector general’s office.

We did less well in terms of ethics enforcement, campaign finance regulation and the usefulness of the Access to Public Records Act.

Overall, the project report said the states that scored poorly shared a common problem: Most of them had laws in place to ensure government integrity, but they lacked teeth.

Here in Indiana, people interviewed for the report noted that officials in all three branches of government are required to file conflict-of-interest reports, but the reports often are not specific, are rarely checked, and are not easily accessible to the public.

While the commission on judicial qualifications gets high marks for its independence, there are concerns that the ethics bodies for the executive and legislative branches lack similar independence, and enforcement has been lax. However, the Legislature did pass reforms in 2010 that should restrict lobbyist gifts and keep legislators from going straight from the chamber to lobbying jobs.

Of interest, one criticism of Indiana government was common to most states and may raise some eyebrows. The General Assembly is made up of part-time “citizen legislators” who generally have other jobs. Many consider that a strength of state legislatures, but the report notes that it also creates many potential conflicts of interest.

The Indiana portion of the report notes, for example, that Ivy Tech Community College employs a lot of legislators and also has received substantial increases in state funding in recent years. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t look good.

There is good news for the taxpayers who would like to see the state get its grades up. U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett recently announced that his office is making public corruption a top area of concern. With a few more convictions of state and local officials, we could be right up there with Illinois.•

• Fargo is an Indiana University journalism professor and member of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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