Earlier this year, when Texas’ 84th legislative session was just shifting into gear, Gov. Greg Abbott was urging sweeping ethics reform. He characterized government transparency as the most important commodity to bolster the bond of trust between lawmakers and the people. Despite the promises, not much changed last session.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Center for Public Integrity has released a new scorecard for what it’s calling “state integrity.” Out of all 50 states tested, Texas didn’t do so well. The Lone Star state got a “D-” grade, putting us as number 38 on their public integrity meter.
Nicholas Kusnetz is a project manager at the Center. He says no state actually made above a grade “C,” and barring major scandals, there may not be much incentive to pass new open government laws in this state – or others.
“States are evaluated across a really broad range of government operations,” Kusnetz says.
The investigation looked at questions of government transparency and accountability, covering topics like open records and ethics laws, budget processes, internal auditing and lobbying disclosure.
Kusnetz says Texas suffered poor ratings in a number of different categories. “For example,” he says, “There’s unlimited campaign spending in the state and that really hurt the grade. Lawmakers have no revolving door law covering them, so they can leave office and go into any private sector job they please. There’s weak ethics oversight. The member of the Ethics Commission, in fact, this year said that the body faces an ‘ethics emergency.'”
Kusnetz says there’s also not an entity that oversees the application of open records laws. He says Texas earned an “F” grade in most of these categories. There were, however, a few areas where Texas scored pretty well: budget transparency and internal auditing.
So who earned the top score of “C?” Kusnetz says the highest grade goes to Alaska. “What you see in Alaska are a lot of pretty strong oversight laws, public access to information laws,” he says. “They did very well with lobbying disclosure.”
Kusnetz says the higher scores seem to come at a cost. There’s not much incentive for states to improve their open government practices, so historically changes have only come on the heels of a major scandal.
“I think what you see in Texas… is that when you have public officials essentially in charge of the laws that oversee themselves. So a lot of the time there isn’t a lot of change,” he says. “Some of the states that score well in our assessment are states with a history of corruption that had big scandals and that’s what it took to really react and pass some strong laws.”