“Integrity” is not a word we generally associate with state government in Illinois, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Louisiana.
“Corruption” is a more likely answer on a multiple-choice test, based on the sheer volume of high-visibility scandals involving their top public officials.
But counterintuitive as it may seem, those states occupy four of the top six spots on the Better Government Association’s new 50-state “Integrity Index,” which measures the strength of basic government integrity laws in four key areas: Open Meetings, Freedom of Information, Whistleblower Protection and Conflict of Interest.
Those laws are supposed to make government accessible, transparent and accountable to regular citizens who want to attend public meetings, review documents and raise questions without fear of retribution.
That won’t eliminate corruption — even the powerful investigative tools of the FBI and U.S. attorney barely scratch the surface — but when those laws are clearly written and then enforced, watchdogs and citizens can shine a brighter light on public officials, and potentially deter or reduce malfeasance.
Unfortunately, the laws in those four areas are weak across the country, and enforcement is lax, according to our Integrity Index.
On a scale of 1 to 100, the 50 states collectively average 55, which is a failing grade on any exam.
An “F” — they flunk Integrity 101.
And even the highest scores — including Illinois, which comes in third — don’t even reach 70, which is a “D-plus” or a “C-minus” if we’re being charitable.
So “better than most” is still nothing for Illinois to brag about.
And we’re better only because our sordid history of political corruption puts enough heat on Springfield lawmakers to take the baby reform steps that create a framework for integrity.
Some public officials don’t comply with the new laws — you can lead a horse to water . . . etc. etc. — but at least they know what’s expected.
Conversely, the index isn’t meant to stigmatize states at the bottom of the integrity list, including Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Idaho.
They’re sparsely populated Western states without a legacy of rampant political corruption, so there’s less pressure to adopt strong integrity laws.
But there is one outlier among the bottom feeders: Michigan, which is more like Illinois than Idaho, but comes in 48th out of 50 states. That should be a wake-up call to our neighbors in MI.
This, by the way, is the third iteration of our Integrity Index, and we’ve seen a slight overall improvement since our last one in ’08, but obviously not enough.
Our goal is to stimulate a vigorous public discussion on the importance of transparency and accountability, so more states will strengthen those laws and increase compliance.
Meanwhile, we’re already thinking about the next Index — a look at state laws aimed at fighting government corruption more directly: laws with sharp enough teeth and serious enough penalties to actually stop behavior that may not be criminal, but is certainly wasteful, fraudulent, unethical and unacceptable.
It’s the statutory layer above open, accessible, and accountable government.
And only the best lawmakers will even consider it.
So sadly, we’re pretty sure Illinois and the other states will do even worse on that one.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.