What Are the Only 3 States That Score Higher Than a D+ in the Corruption Index?

Lambert here: I’m afraid my own state, Maine, doesn’t do very well; we get an F, and a ranking of 43. Up here, we like to think of ourselves as clean, like the snow, except near the mills, but watching the progress, or regress, of our landfill has taught me that’s not so. (It’s also taught me that today’s Democrats aren’t any cleaner than the Republicans, a factor that partly accounts for the election and re-election of Governor LePage.) Our problems with corruption are compounded by term limits, which ensure that the only institutional memory in Augusta comes from lobbyists and their lawyers.

Of course, in our neoliberal era, it’s only natural that the offices of the state should be on the market, like everything else. If that seems a bit ancien regime, that’s because it is.

By Nicholas Kusnetz, who reports on state government corruption and transparency for the State Integrity Investigation. Originally published at Alternet.

In November 2014, Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure that, among other reforms, barred the state’s elected officials from accepting lobbyists’ gifts. But that hasn’t stopped influence peddlers from continuing toprovide meals to lawmakers at the luxurious Capital Hotel or in top Little Rock eateries like the Brave New Restaurant; the prohibition does not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited,” so lobbyists can buy meals so long as they invite an entire legislative committee.

Such loopholes are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The comprehensive probe found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.

Take the Missouri lawmaker who introduced a bill this year — which passed despite a veto by the governor — to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores. The state representative cited concern for shoppers, but he also happens to be state director of the Missouri Grocers Association, and is just one of several lawmakers in the state who pushed bills that synced with their private interests.

Or the lobbyist who, despite a $50 cap on gifts to Idaho state lawmakers, spent $2,250 in 2013 to host a state senator and his wife at the annual Governors Cup charity golf tournament in Sun Valley; the prohibition does not apply to such lobbying largess as long as the money is not spent “in return for action” on a particular bill.

In Delaware, the Public Integrity Commission, which oversees lobbying and ethics laws for the executive branch there, has just two full-time employees. A2013 report by a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”

And in New Mexico, lawmakers passed a resolution in 2013 declaring that their emails are exempt from public records laws — a rule change that did not require the governor’s signature. “I think it’s up to me to decide if you can have my record,” one representative said.

These are among the practices illuminated by the State Integrity Investigation, which measured hundreds of variables to compile transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states. The results are nothing short of stunning. The best grade in the nation, which went toAlaska, is just a C. Only two others earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades. The findings may be deflating to the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent poll, now look to the states for policy solutions as gridlock and partisanship have overtaken Washington D.C.

The top of the pack includes bastions of progressive government, including California (ranked 2nd with a C-), and states notorious for corrupt pasts (Connecticut, 3rd with a C-, and Rhode Island, 5th with a D+). In those New England states, scandals led to significant reforms and relatively robust ethics laws, even if dubious dealings linger in the halls of government. The bottom includes many western states that champion limited government, like Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.

The results are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. Franzese said that, with many states still struggling financially, ethics oversight in particular is among the last issues to receive funding. “It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.

With a few notable exceptions, there has been little progress on these issues since the State Integrity Investigation was first carried out, in 2012. In fact, most scores have dropped since then, though some of that is due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology.

Since State Integrity’s first go-round, at least 12 states have seen their legislative leaders or top cabinet-level officials charged, convicted or resign as a result of ethics or corruption-related scandal. Five house or assembly leaders have fallen. No state has outdone New York, where 14 lawmakers have left office since the beginning of 2012 due to ethical or criminal issues, according to a count by Citizens Union, an advocacy group. That does not include the former leaders of both the Assembly and the Senate, who were charged in unrelated corruption schemes earlier this year but remain in office.

New York is not remarkable, however, in at least one regard: Only one of those 14 lawmakers has been sanctioned by the state’s ethics commission.

Grading the States

When first conducted in 2011-2012, the State Integrity Investigation was an unprecedented look at the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur. Unlike many other examinations of the issue, the project does not attempt to measure corruption itself.

The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions that ask about key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say, but also how well they’re enforced or implemented. The “indicators” are divided into 13 categories: public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, state pension fund management and ethics enforcement agencies.

Experienced journalists in each state undertook exhaustive research and reporting to score each of the questions, which ask, for example, whether lawmakers are required to file financial interest disclosures, and also whether they are complete and detailed. The results are both intuitive — an F for New York’s “three men in a room” budget process — and surprising — Illinois earned the best grade in the nation for its procurement practices. All together, the project presents a comprehensive look at transparency, accountability and ethics in state government. It’s not a pretty picture.

Downward Trend, Blips of Daylight

Overall, states scored notably worse in this second round. Some of that decline is because of changes to the project, such as the addition of questions asking about “open data” policies, which call on governments to publish information online in formats that are easy to download and analyze. But the drop also reflects moves toward greater secrecy in some states.

“Across the board, accessing government has always been, but is increasingly, a barrier to people from every reform angle,” said Jenny Rose Flanagan, vice president for state operations at Common Cause, a national advocacy group with chapters in most states.

No state saw its score fall farther than New Jersey, where scandal after scandal seems to have sunk Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations deep into the muck of the state’s brawling, back-scratching political history. New Jersey earned a B+, the best score in the nation, in 2012 — shocking just about anyone familiar with the state’s politics — thanks to tough ethics and anti-corruption laws that had been passed over the previous decade in response to a series of scandals.

None of that has changed. But journalists, advocates and academics have accused the Christie administration of fighting and delaying potentially damaging public records requests and meddling in the affairs of the State Ethics Commission. That’s on top of Bridgegate, the sprawling scandal that began as a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge but has led to the indictments so far of one of the governor’s aides and two of his appointees — one of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges — and even to the resignations of top executives at United Airlines. As a result of these scandals and others, New Jersey dropped to 19th place overall with a D grade.

Admittedly, it’s not all doom and gloom. Iowa created an independent board with authority to mediate disputes when agencies reject public records requests. Gov. Terry Branstad cited the state’s previous grade from the Center when he signed the bill, and the move helped catapult Iowa to first in the nation in the category for access to information, with a C- grade (Iowa’s overall score actually dropped modestly).

In Georgia, good government groups latched on to the state’s worst-in-the-nation rank in 2012 to amplify their ongoing push for reforms. The result was a modest law the following year that created a $75 cap on the value of lobbyists’ gifts to public officials. The change helped boost the state’s score in the category of legislative accountability to a C-, sixth-best in the nation.

Perhaps the most dramatic reforms came in Virginia, where scandal engulfed the administration of outgoing Gov. Robert McDonnell in 2013 after it emerged that he and his family had accepted more than $170,000 in loans and gifts, much of it undisclosed, from a Virginia businessman. McDonnell and his wife were later convicted on federal corruption charges, but the case underscored the state’s woefully lax ethics laws and oversight regime; Virginia received an overall F grade in 2012. At the time, there was no limit on the value of gifts that public officials could accept, and they were not required to disclose gifts to their immediate family, a clause that McDonnell grasped at to argue that he had complied with state laws. (Appeals of the McDonnells’ convictions are pending.)

Over the next two years, newly-elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers passed a series of executive actions and laws that eventually led, in 2015, to a $100 cap on gifts to public officials from lobbyists and people seeking state business. They also created an ethics council that will advise lawmakers but will not have the power to issue sanctions. Advocates for ethics reform have said the changes, while significant, fall far short of what’s needed, particularly the creation of an ethics commission with enforcement powers. Still, they helped push the state’s grade up to a D.

States also continued to score relatively well in the categories for auditing practices — 29 earned B- or better — and for budget transparency — 16 got a B- or above (the category measures whether the budget process is transparent, with sufficient checks and balances, not whether it’s well managed).

In Idaho, for example, which earned an A and the second best score for its budget process, the public is free to watch the Legislature’s joint budget committee meetings. Those not able to make it to Boise can watch by streaming video. Citizens can provide input during hearings and can view the full budget bill online.

New York earned the top score for its auditing practices — a B+ — because of its robustly-funded state comptroller’s office, which is headed by an elected official who is largely protected from interference by the governor or Legislature. The office issues an annual report, which is publicly available, and has shown little hesitation to go after state agencies, such as in a recent audit that identified $500 million in waste in the state’s Medicaid program.

Unfortunately, however, such bright spots are the exceptions.

Access Denied

In 2013, George LeVines submitted a request for records to the Massachusetts State Police, asking for controlled substance seizure reports at state prisons dating back seven years. LeVines, who at the time was assistant editor at Muckrock, a news website and records-request repository, soon received a response from the agency saying he could have copies of the reports, but they would cost him $130,000. While LeVines is quick to admit that his request was extremely broad, the figure shocked him nonetheless.

“I wouldn’t have ever expected getting that just scot-free, that does cost money,” he said. But $130,000? “It’s insane.”

The cost was prohibitive, and LeVines withdrew his request. The Massachusetts State Police has become a notorious steel trap of information — it’s charged tens of thousands of dollars or even, in one case, $2.7 million to produce documents — and was awarded this year with the tongue-in-cheek Golden Padlock award by a national journalism organization, which each year “honors” an agency or public official for its “abiding commitment to secrecy and impressive skill in information suppression.”

Dave Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said in an email that the department is committed to transparency, but that its records are laced with sensitive information that’s exempt from disclosure and that reviewing the material is time consuming and expensive. “While we most certainly agree that the public has a right to information not legally exempt from disclosure,” he wrote, “we will not cut corners for the purpose of expediency or economy if doing so means that private personal, medi[c]al, or criminal history information is inappropriately released.”

It’s not just the police. Both the Legislature and the judicial branch are at least partly exempt from Massachusetts’ public records law. Governors have cited a state Supreme Court ruling to argue that they, too, are exempt, though chief executives often comply with requests anyway. A review by The Boston Globe found that the secretary of state’s office, the first line of appeal for rejected requests, had ruled in favor of those seeking records in only 1-in-5 cases. Needless to say, Massachusetts earned an F in the category for public access to information. But so did 43 other states, making this the worst performing category in the State Integrity Investigation.

While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions and usually have essentially no enforcement mechanisms, beyond the court system, when agencies refuse to comply. In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws. Many agencies routinely fail to explain why they they’ve denied requests. Public officials charge excessive fees to discourage requestors. In the vast majority of states, citizens are unable to quickly and affordably resolve appeals when their records are denied. Only one state — Missouri — received a perfect score on a question asking whether citizens actually receive responses to their requests swiftly and at reasonable cost.

“We’re seeing increased secrecy throughout the country at the state and federal level,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and an expert on open records laws. He said substantial research shows that the nation’s open records laws have been poked and prodded to include a sprawling list of exemptions and impediments, and that public officials increasingly use those statutes to deny access to records. “It’s getting worse every year,” he said.

After a series of shootings by police officers in New Mexico, the Santa Fe New Mexican published a report about controversial changes made to the state-run training academy. But when a reporter requested copies of the new curriculum, the program’s director refused, saying “I’ll burn them before you get them.”

In January, The Wichita Eagle reported that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director had used his private email address to send details of a proposed budget to the private email accounts of fellow staff members, and also to a pair of lobbyists. He later said he did so only because he and the rest of the staff were home for the holidays. But in May, Brownback acknowledged that he, too, used a private email account to communicate with staff, meaning his correspondence was not subject to the state’s public records laws. A state council is now studying how to close the loophole. A series of court cases in California are examining a similar question there.

Cuillier said in most states, courts or others have determined that discussions of public business are subject to disclosure, no matter whether the email or phone used was public or private. But the debate is indicative of a larger problem, and it reveals public records laws as the crazy old uncle of government statutes: toothless, antiquated appendages of a bygone era.

Weak ethics oversight

Governments write ethics laws for a reason, presumably. Public officials can’t always be trusted to do the right thing; we need laws to make sure they do. The trouble is, a law is only as good as its enforcement, and the entities responsible for overseeing ethics are often impotent and ineffective.

In many states, a complex mix of legislative committees, stand-alone commissions and law enforcement agencies police the ethics laws. And more often than not, the State Integrity Investigation shows, those entities are underfunded, subject to political interference or are simply unable or unwilling to initiate investigations and issue sanctions when rules are broken. Or at least that’s as far as the public can tell: many of these bodies operate largely in secret.

The Tennessee Ethics Commission, for example, rose in 2006 out of the ashes of an FBI bribery probe that had burned four state lawmakers. In its decade of operation, the commission has never issued a penalty as a result of an ethics complaint against a public official (it did issue one to a lobbyist). That may seem surprising, but the dearth of actions is impossible to assess because the complaints become public only if four of six commissioners decide they warrant investigation. Of 17 complaints received in 2013 and 2014, only two are public.

“There just haven’t been that many valid complaints alleging wrongdoing,” said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, which includes the commission.

In 2013, in a case that did become public, the commission decided against issuing a fine to a powerful lobbyist and former adviser to Gov. Bill Haslam who had failed to disclose that he’d lobbied on behalf of a mining company that was seeking a state contract. The lobbyist had maintained that his failure was simply an oversight, and only one commissioner voted to issue a penalty.

In Kansas, staff shortages mean the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission is unable to fully audit lawmakers’ financial disclosures, according to Executive Director Carol Williams. “We would love to be able to do more comprehensive audits,” Williams told the investigation’s Kansas reporter. Instead, she said, all her staff can do is make sure officials are filling out the forms. “Whether they are correct or not, we don’t know.” Only two states initiate comprehensive, independent audits of lawmakers’ asset disclosures on an annual basis.

The State Integrity Investigation found that in two-thirds of all states, ethics agencies or committees routinely fail to initiate investigations or impose sanctions when necessary, often because they’re unable to do so without first receiving a complaint.

“Many of these laws are out of date. They need to be revised,” said Robert Stern, who spent decades as president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which worked with local and state governments to improve ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws until it shut in 2011. Stern, who is currently helping to write a ballot initiative that would update California’s ethics statutes, said that while he thinks the State Integrity Investigation grades are unrealistically harsh, they do reflect the fact that state lawmakers have neglected their responsibilities when it comes to ethics and transparency. “It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them, and they don’t want to fund the people enforcing them.”

In 3-in-5 states, the project found, ethics entities are inadequately funded, causing staff to be overloaded with work and, occasionally, forcing them to delay investigations.

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission is charged with overseeing ethics laws for the executive and legislative branches, lobbying activity and campaign finance. This year, the commission operated on a budget of $1 million. In 2014, the nonprofit news site Oklahoma Watch reported that the commission had collected only 40 percent of all the late-filing penalties it had assessed to candidates, committees and other groups since it was created in 1990. Part of that failure was the result of a challenge to the commission’s rules, but Executive Director Lee Slater said that much of it was simply due to a lack of resources.

“Until about a month ago, we had five employees in this office,” Slater said. “We’ve now got six. Try to do it with six employees.” Slater said the commission this year began collecting all fees it is owed, thanks to the sixth employee — whose salary is financed with fees — and new rules that clarify its authority. But he said the agency simply does not have enough money to do what it ought to. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we do everything we should,” he said. “But I will tell you that we do the best that we can, whatever that is.”

Slater said he’s been told to expect a cut of between 5 and 20 percent to the commission’s appropriations next year ($775,000 of the commission’s current budget comes from appropriations).

Oklahoma is hardly an outlier. “They don’t have the resources,” Stern said, speaking of similar agencies across the country. “That’s the problem.”

New Frontier Points to Old Problem

Not long ago, journalists and citizen watchdogs were thrilled to get access to any type of information online. But standards have changed quickly, and many have come to expect government to not just publish data online, but to do so in “open data” formats that allow users to download and analyze the information.

“By making data available digitally, it can be more easily reused and repurposed,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group. (Global Integrity consulted with the Sunlight Foundation when writing the open data questions for this project).

Only nine states have adopted open data measures, according to the Sunlight Foundation, some of which do little more than create an advisory panel to study the issue.

The 2015 State Integrity Investigation included questions in each category asking whether governments are meeting open data principles. Almost universally, the answer was no. More than anything, these scores were responsible for dragging down the grades since the first round of the project.

While open data principles are relatively new, the poor performance on these questions is indicative of the project’s findings as a whole. “If we really wanted to do it right we’d just scrap it all and start from scratch,” said Cuillier, of the University of Arizona, speaking of the broken state of open records and accessibility laws. That clearly is not going to happen, he said, so instead, “we’re going to continue to have laws that are archaic and tinkered with, and usually in the wrong direction.”

This articles draws on reporting from State Integrity Investigation reporters in all 50 states.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. James Levy

    This is why I am baffled by people who think that if we “leave it to the States” or just adopt a “10th Amendment attitude” things will be better. As someone born and raised in New York, I can tell you that leaving things to the state to figure out is an invitation to disaster. Ditto New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and just imagine Mississippi or Alabama or Delaware. Imagine what would happen to Detriot if the other states weren’t looking. Most states are so dominated by a few powerful monied interests (especially the ones dependent on extractive industries) that they will get their way no matter what. It’ only the jumble of interests at the national level that gives us room for playing one interest off another and forcing compromise.

    1. Jeff

      I read recently Oil! by Upton Sinclair (of “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” fame).
      While that book is written in 1927, it looks very contemporaneous: Americans sent to war with Russia in Siberia (1918) because JP Morgan wanted it, the narcissism, the cronyism and the direct corruption of the 1% the buying of elections, the value of propaganda, the destruction of unions and labourer classes…
      It is very surprising to learn how little has changed in almost a century.

      1. par4

        There are still American Imperialists coveting Siberia. I would approve of Putin accommodating them, in a gulag.

    2. Jacqueline Bolles

      JFK felt that the “Social meanness” on the local level was too pronounced to leave government to the states.

    3. Ishmael

      First let me say the rating totally made no sense once I saw that California was ranked 2nd.

      Why is it better to leave it to the states. (1) you can not just bribe one group you have to bribe 50, (2) people are closer to their local govt and more likely to throw it out, (3) each state is an experiment and the theory goes that if one state is doing a lot better people will move from the poor performer to the good performer and put stress on the poor performer to change — when you are a monopoly there is no reason to change.

      That is a quick three I can think of.

      1. James Levy

        Your first point makes no sense. Your second, that “throw the bums out” at the State level is more prevalent than at the national level is not born out by the facts. You ignore the entire issue of how it is easier for one interest to capture local political control whereas no single group (with the recent possible exception of finance capital) is able to completely dictate to the federal government and does not have to compete with other interests at a national level. In short, you repeat certain mantras that libertarians love to trundle out but none of them says a damned thing about why the States are less corrupt or easier to control than the national government.

        1. Ishmael

          If point 1 does not make sense to you then hummm I do not know what to say! No use discussing it with you!

    4. TG

      Um I hear you, but…

      If you use purchasing power parity, the Great State of Alabama has much less poverty per capita than overcrowded third-world California. Heck, half of the residents of ‘liberal’ New York are living in de-facto poverty – in real terms the average resident of Alabama is doing MUCH better. Both of Alabama’s US senators voted against TPP/Obamatrade, which makes them more progressive than Hillary Clinton! So no, Alabama is not perfect… just not something to make fun of.

      People who live in tin houses should not throw can openers. Unless you line in a REAL progressive state like maybe North Dakota, don’t make fun of Alabama unless you are more sure of your facts. IMHO.

      1. Jim in SC

        Likewise South Carolina. It is amazing how inexpensive real estate is in some rural areas that are not too far from more metropolitan places like Columbia, Florence, Charlotte, Augusta, or Myrtle Beach. You wouldn’t want to drive it every day, but…they are there when you want them.

        Figure out something remunerative to do on the internet. Homeschool if the school district isn’t great. Live your life.

  2. Northeaster

    Massachusetts public records access is the worst in the nation, exemplified by the fight from The Massachusetts Municipal Association and Massachusetts State Police to prevent further access.

    Also not mentioned in our recent history of three(3) felon in a row ex-State Speakers, the current fourth in a row is an “unindicted co-conspirator” along with over thirty (3) State Legislators for state job rigging, especially in Probation where the Speakers son became the youngest Chief (in his twenties) in history.

    When a ballot measure passes by The People, The Legislature either ignores it (see state taxes) or drags their feet to implement, if ever.

    We can’t vote any out because of massive gerrymandering, which was the reason one of or past felon Speakers, Tom Finneran, now a disbarred attorney, plead guilty for perjury for gerrymandering. He was of course rewarded by being given his own radio show in town.

  3. digi_owl

    “Americans sent to war with Russia in Siberia (1918)”

    Do wonder how much of that time period is still firm in the Russian national psyche…

    1. alex morfesis

      Since no one complained a decade earlier when american troops were in china, it was quite easy for sir morgan to make his white Russian requests…

  4. ambrit

    Along with Sinclair I’d rank Sinclair Lewis as a testament to the eternal verities of mans’ “fallen” state. What is so amusing about todays’ version of “we’re the best there ever was,” is the lack of generally popular literature, to which we must now append video and audio “media,” covering ‘serious’ topics. Todays’ “Elmer Gantry,” “Dodsworth,” “Babbitt,” “It Can’t Happen Here,” “Kingsblood Royal,” where are you? I suffer from ‘snobbery’ to an extent, but, can anyone tell me why “Young Adult” fiction needs its’ own category? It used to be called “Juvenile” fiction, with no onerous connotation to ‘juvenile.’
    Upton Sinclair holds a special place in my heart for his End Poverty In California (EPIC) campaign for governor of that state in 1934. A good piece about that campaign and its’ effects was in the Nation magazine: http://www.thenation.com/article/upton-sinclairs-epic-campaign/
    Everything that was old is new again.

    1. DJG

      I’m not sure that a new Sinclair Lewis is required: Just read the books in the list that you give. Babbitt is a diagnosis of the endless U.S. sloganry and chicanery. (And the insufficient use of the name Tanis.) Dodsworth and its critique of captains of industry is great, and it also sends up Prohibition wittily.

      Kingsblood Royal is a lost classic: Lewis saw through U.S. hypocrisy and hysteria about race. {From a chance discovery by the main character to a race riot: Find yourself a copy of Kingsblood Royal if you have never heard of it.)

      It Can’t Happen Here: Listen to the Trump and Carson campaigns. Lewis knew how the fatal flaws keeping paying out…

  5. Carla

    “The bottom includes many western states that champion limited government, like Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.”

    What good are laws establishing ethical standards and requiring open records, when a state such as my own Ohio has both on the books, and manages only a grade of D+? It’s just so much busywork.

    1. Gio Bruno

      Well, then either the standards are bogus or the system is corrupt. (Finding more than one ethically upright person in a legislature is probably a challenge. Groupthink and all.)

  6. margaret beresford

    Although, to some degree, these results are encouraging for those with limited expectations—The reality is that, not one bank or quasi-investment entity, has seen any reform—or prosecution for the trillions of taxpayer/customer money stolen during the derivative-based, gambling financial crisis.

    All expectations were lost when these notorious gang-like banks were simply bailed out–with future legislative bail-ins guaranteed, along with ISDS (investor-state dispute settlement clauses). Set in every trade agreement, to soon explode into ponzy schemes to privatize all publicly built programs/services. As well as control/counter all domestic economic growth, currently the life-support of every nation-state globally, (see bilaterals.org ).
    More progress, in shorter-time spans, would have been accomplished through re-designing at tax system where only, taxpayers determine what they actually are paying for….As opposed to the present status in which corporations/banks dictate, with the complicit assistance of mass media, how taxes are targeted to socialize the costs of capitalism, at the expense of all social well-being of people….thus the public, overall..

    1. susan the other

      I was thinking this same thing too. We’ve been to so many rodeos, all of us, brought to us by insider pols who rob us blind, that it might well be time to look at direct referendum legislation. We’ve got the technology – but we are all still politically lazy. The danger lies in enough nutty people being manipulated by the consent manufacturers into making decisions that are too nazi. If we could learn to operate in our common interests it would be successful. And if we were a nation based on law we might also survive. But it’s mind-boggling to think that we literally need to start from scratch because our entire political fabric is shredded.

    2. TheCatSaid

      Superb interview by Laura Flanders with Josh Lerner on the topic of participatory budgeting, which has been implemented in many municipal and local governments: An Economy for the 99%: Josh Lerner and Connie Razza

      See also two good segments on The Real News Network about direct democracy / participatory budgeting:
      Chicago’s 49th Ward first US government to adopt Brazilian practice of letting the people make their own budgets
      Direct Action from Brazil to Wisconsin

  7. perpetualWAR

    Again, it seems I cannot reply? Hmm.

    Ambrit, I am with you. I wonder the very same thing about our popular music…where is the anti-war rhetoric that was so prevalent in the Vietnam-era music? We’ve been ‘at war’ in Iraq and Afghanistan for just about the same timeframe, but there is no anti-war music or anti-war demonstrations (by and large.)

    In addition, I would like to add Washington State was given a D+ rating, which I find hilarious considering one of our top elected state officials (Auditor) has been indicted for embezzlement. And our Attorney General was written up in the NYT for a possible bribery scandal concerning solicitations with 5 Hour Energy lobbyists. It seems to me both of these little scandals should have given us a failing grade.

    1. ambrit

      As far as “a failing grade” goes, there are fails and there are FAILS.
      I went to a public high school where a ‘C’ was considered reprehensible. It all depends on how the grading is designed. The “curve” and “inclusionism” can mask a failing system. In the so called “soft” sciences, this is possible. In “hard” sciences, not so. When a bridge you design falls down, it is pretty much certain that you are not qualified for that job. When an elected official circumvents laws denying he or she the benefits of corruption, those laws can be challenged on many fronts. How well the official navigates that situation defines he or she as either an efficient corrupt politician, or an inept one. The present system in governance has blurred the lines between ‘Public Servant’ and, an apt Latin American phrase, ‘Politico.’
      If I read the article correctly, the criteria used to make the rankings reflect the basic architecture of the Transparency systems in place. Something like an “Ideal” and a “Reality” juxtaposition. As someone remarked; “The real value of a law is in its’ enforcement mechanism.”
      On the music front, I see definite signs of a protest movement, but an internal one. Add up the many tunes aimed at the classic ‘disadvantaged youth’ segment, and you will see a deep and dark world weariness and cynicism. Many young and poor know that something is wrong, but lack the resources, intellectual and physical, to combat the anonymous anomie. Music and theatre have been traditional ways of combatting the status quo. That is why governments in crisis always try to control both. Think of the battle between the French Ancien Regime and the producers of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

    2. John Zelnicker

      @perpetualWAR – Having been involved in the Viet Nam anti-war movement, I believe one of the main reasons there is not the same level of anti-war sentiment today is that there is no draft for military service. When most young men (women, of course, were not subject to the draft) had the threat hanging over them of fighting, and dying, in an unpopular war, there was a much larger cohort that had reason to try to stop the war. With a volunteer army, young men today don’t have to worry about fighting in a war unless they choose to do so.

      Another, perhaps indirect, factor is the enormous increase in the use of anti-depressants and other psychotropic drugs. As my last ex-wife told me, these drugs make it far too easy to just lay back and not care about anything disturbing.

    3. Sam Adams

      Anti-war music and a contemporary Dylan do not exist for the vast majority in this current generation. Contemporary popular music Is about bling, consumer goods and buy-moar. Free Time is devoted to escaping declining incomes and increasing debt servitude and declining expectations defer creating families. Pink mist is never shown on new media news sources, video games glorify bursting into villages or straffing bad guys in black hats with joy-sticks. The ,message to this generation is ‘keep your head down, just carry on. You may create the next unicorn app.”

      1. Gio Bruno

        Maybe the reason there doesn’t seem to be any anti-war music is that it’s in a genre that is unfamiliar to you. The semi-clear lyrics of Dylan has been replaced by the repetitive rhythm of rap. I’m more into harmony and melody in my listening faire, but occasionally I can make out the lyrics in a rap song and protest seems to be clear. (Often the “war” is a local one.)

        Comparing the MSM of the 60’s to today is distracting: there is no Cronkite today to declare the futility of Vietnam (Iraq), or an I.F. Stone to write about political idiocy. Jingoism is today’s headline.

      2. Paul Tioxon


        Living in the wasteland of the free.
        by Iris Dement


        Three Great Alabama Icons
        by The Drive By Truckers.


        Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Male

        by Todd Snider

        Some time you have to go underground to find the writing on the wall. The rap selling Detroit cars is not the underground anymore.

  8. Kris Alman

    As a political activist in the very blue state of Oregon, I keep thinking about the chicken and the egg.

    Oregon is supposedly a state that ranks high in equality of political representation. Supposedly, Oregon bucks oligopolistic trends, where wealthy and corporations exert disproportionate influence over the U.S. political system. And supposedly, we are a “laboratory of democracy” with “more egalitarian patterns of political representation.”

    Maybe this is just relativism.

    The puppet strings are firmly held by free trader/traitor Phil Knight who gets his way from local and state politicians.

    • The state legislature orders the city of Beaverton that it cannot “force” annexation of Nike. http://www.oregonlive.com/beaverton/index.ssf/2013/04/beaverton_hopes_repaired_relat.html
    • Governor Kitzhaber convenes a special session to give Nike “tax certainty.”
    • The City of Beaverton and Washington County approve an enterprise zone for unincorporated Nike (A tax shelter within tax shelters. Remember Nike spurned Beaverton’s attempts to tax them!) http://www.pamplinmedia.com/bvt/15-news/150729-beaverton-all-smiles-about-nikes-washington-county-expansion-plans
    • And who could forget the influence of Nike (and Obama) on the TPP? Senator Wyden, Congresswoman Bonamici, and Congressmen Bluemenauer and Schrader (all Ds) supported fast track authority. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/09/business/nike-to-create-jobs-if-trans-pacific-partnership-is-approved.html?_r=0

    Our C- grade in the 2012 State Integrity Investigation dipped to an F this year. Now we are 42nd in the nation. Lee van der Voo, the reporter for the story on Oregon points out that “low pay combines with a lack of campaign finance law to eliminate a buffer between Oregon legislators and special interests in the private sector.”

    Oregon ranks 49th in the nation when it comes to political financing. Van der Voo wrote in 2012, “Oregon has no limits on campaign contributions. Voters approved campaign contribution limits in 1994, but the Oregon Supreme Court later ruled the limits were prohibited under the state Constitution guaranteeing free speech… Janice Thompson, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, said the lack of limits on campaign contributions of all kinds – corporate, individual and by committee – produce unfortunate effects.”

    Earlier this year, Secretary of State Kate Brown was the sponsor of SJR 5, a bill which proposed an amendment to the Oregon Constitution to enact laws limiting or prohibiting contributions made in connection with campaigns for nomination or election to public office. https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2015R1/Downloads/MeasureDocument/SJR5

    Early in the legislative session, Governor Kitzhaber resigned, disgraced by his ethical lapses and partisan abuses of power, described in Van der Voo’s 2015 analysis.

    The Secretary of State became the Governor. And what happened to SJR 5? Well… it had a robust hearing with supportive testimony from citizens all over Oregon–including that of Governor Brown. https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2015R1/Downloads/CommitteeMeetingDocument/68195

    But it died in committee. No work session to hear the opinions of the Rules Committee. The chair of that committee Senate Democratic Leader Diane Rosenbaum and Senate President Peter Courtney (both Democrats) had other ideas. http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/steve_duin/index.ssf/2015/06/steve_duin_blog_democrats_spik.html

    Oregon Democrats are chicken to crack the egg of political financing. The question is, “Why?”

  9. DJG

    As someone from Illinois, constantly being cited as the most corrupt place in the nation, I am amused and appalled at its grade of D+. The laws are on the books, as some kind of glimmer of the progressive past, and Illinois indeed has a progressive past.

    That D+ put Illinois in 13th place among the 50. What is important about this ranking and this article is to dispense with the idea that there are states that are somehow not corrupt. (California did well, but then the article didn’t focus on agribusiness, real estate, and water rights, all of which are rather rotten there.)

    As in Anna Karenina, every happy state (Sweden and Denmark, I guess) is happy in the same way. Every corrupt state is corrupt in a different way, which is why the individual profiles are even more complex. (Follow the links.) There are laws on the books, or lack thereof. There is history of corruption and history of fiefdoms. There are ethnic and racial legacies. There is upstate versus downstate.

    But the findings are now out there: The U S of A is corrupt all the way down to your local school board. Now what do we do? If current events in the U S of A are any indication, what will happen? Nothing.

    1. Ishmael

      As I mentioned above California being one of the top three is a joke. California is basically a state ran for and on behalf of state and local workers. Look at the state’s credit rating it can not live with in its means. Our legislatures are paid 10 times what other states are paid and look at how many cities have declared bankruptcy and are lined up to declare bankruptcy.

      The average govt worker even without considering benefits is paid double what the average worker is paid. Look at how well the govt functions. Going down to get a car tag or driver’s license can be a 5 hour ordeal. Do you know how long it took me to tag a car in Oklahoma — 10 minutes.

      I say Michigan = Argentian, Illinois = Venezuela and California = Brazil.

      The rating system must be ranked by some BS criteria.

        1. Ishmael

          Well Lambert in fact people have been rushing to move there. Oklahoma has had a significant population increase in the last few years with a large number of now get this companies relocating from Commiefornia to Oklahoma (now i split my time between the two). Just checking since 1980 Oklahoma has had a 50% increase in its population. In addition, Boeing has announced that it is building several new plants to manufacture airplanes in Oklahoma. I just spent practically the last 18 months consulting for large companies in Oklahoma (there is no work that pays at all in California) and you would be surprised in how many people I come across who have moved from California to Oklahoma in the last few years and are quite happy about it. One of the lowest cost of living in the US combined with wages that are higher on average than most of the US. California has an exodus of skilled workers while Oklahoma has an inflow. Oh and by the way a large number of the jobs are highly skilled and focused on engineering. One other thing, if you take NW Arkansas, North Texas and Oklahoma I bet you have a multiple of Fortune 500 companies headquartered there compared to Southern California.

          On the other hand I do not associate large population growth with quality. There is a saying, Don’t Californiaize Oklahoma!

      1. DJG

        Here’s an idea: Click through to the long article about California and how it was rated. There is a summary box up top.

        And Illinois as Venezuela? A dubious metaphor indeed.

        1. Ishmael

          Illinois has become non-functional. It does not have a budget and can not pay its bills. It is even paying lottery winners with IOU’s. Oh, and they do not call Chicago Chiraq from no reason.

          1. Skippy

            Endemic looting does have consequences….. especially when the sausage makers ran off with the realized profits whilst sticking everyone else with the dogs breakfast… of their own offal….

            Skippy…. I wonder how much they will charge to pray at Milton’s statute…

            1. theinhibitor

              Born and raised in California, but Ive lived most of my adult life in Chicago (where I went to school and now work).

              Something that was explained to me by a native as to why Chicago is so corrupt is that unlike LA or New York, Chicago is Illinois’ one and only large city. Everything stems from Chicago, and thus the wealthy families in Chicago were able to expand their influence to every corner of the state with ease. This would be impossible to do in say, California or Texas.

              The state and city are intertwined so heavily that what happens in Chicago almost always trickles out across the state.

              It was something I did not realize and have seen to be true.

      2. Skippy

        Groan…. public workers payed too much or private sector paying not enough…

        Skippy…. no go look at a graph showing the divergence between wages and productivity, next check the correlation of increase in billionaires and their kin….

      3. giantsquid

        From personal experience, this claim of hours spent at the California DMV to get car tags seems unlikely (although I read such claims online, no one I know has ever related such a story to me either). (It takes me about 5 minutes to renew my registration online; tags are sent in the mail). And other than when I took my driving test, I’m fairly certain I’ve never spent more than half an hour at the DMV, except when I lived in Georgia for 7 years (1994-2000) where it did sometimes take hours to get things done.

        1. Ishmael

          You must not live in LA. Yes, things can be done online but if for any reason you have to go there it is a long wait. The line usually wraps around the building in WLA. Anyone I ever mention the length of the wait just shakes their head in agreement.

          Hey you can argue with me all you want but if you look across the state the following cities have filed for bankruptcy — Vallero (maybe twice), Stockton and San Bernadino. Los Angeles has huge budget problems. Then there is Oakland.

          1. giantsquid

            Sorry but I do live in Los Angeles. I’ve lived here for most of my life in fact as have my brother and sister. My own experience with the DMV has been particularly good since they began asking people to make appointments for service. I’m not sure what this has to do with government corruption though.

    2. Mel Fish

      “He who fears corruption fears life” There is no perfect state, never has been and never will. Are the states or state any more or less corrupt than in the last 230 years? Regardless, what has worked to rid some of the rot in prior times is fear of punishment for doing wrong and incentives for honesty, i.e. pride in being part of a system with at least a seemingly positive direction. Even without being particularly observant, I can can confidently say neither of those factors currently exist with abundance.

  10. TheCatSaid

    A number of years ago Black Box Voting.org Beverly Harris made extensive FOIA requests to hundreds of local governments regarding election records. She posted the letters and all the responses online. The number of unhelpful, stonewalling, obstructive responses was something to behold–plus the shining exceptions.

    I read every single response. It was a huge education in what goes on at state and local level government, and the many ways that public can be denied access to crucial information.

  11. Ishmael

    Here is some of the most current news on Illinois. Oh and Skippy this is another state that pays its govt employees far more than private employees (Like Michigan and California). It should also be noted that due to California’s poor credit ratings it also has to pay a much larger spread on interest.

    Really Venezuela if it had decent govt instead of a bunch of communists would probably be (and at once was) a decent place to live. It has some of the largest oil reserves in the world. My cousin was married to a Venezuelain. I talked to her a few weeks ago and she is going to a trip to visit ex-relatives who have moved to Spain. Anyone with any wealth has moved out of the country.


    Budget gap, pensions could push Illinois credit rating lower: Moody’s
    November 24, 2015 4:39 PM
    CHICAGO (Reuters) – Illinois’ credit rating could move even closer to “junk” if its already large pension liability and budget deficit grow, Moody’s Investors Service said on Tuesday.

    Last month, the credit rating agency downgraded Illinois just three steps above “junk” to Baa1 with a negative outlook in the wake of a political impasse that has left the fifth-largest U.S. state without a budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1.

    “As long as those conditions continue to deteriorate, those are the most likely drivers of the next downgrade,” Moody’s analyst Ted Hampton said on Tuesday, referring to the pension and deficit problems.

    Even if Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the legislature were to reach a compromise at this point, it would not immediately improve the state’s credit standing. That is because any deal would not likely result in a balanced budget halfway into the fiscal year, Moody’s said in a report.

    Courts have ordered the state to fund payroll and certain services at fiscal 2015 spending levels when revenue was higher due to a temporary hike in income tax rates, baking a $5 billion deficit into the budget as fiscal 2016 progresses.

    Moody’s said growth in Illinois’ chronic unpaid bill pile, a barometer of the state’s structural budget deficit, “would elevate liquidity risks and add further credit pressure.” The bill backlog stood at $7 billion as of Monday and Moody’s projected it could top a $9.9 billion peak reached in November 2010 if the state fails to fill its fiscal 2016 budget gap.

    Illinois’ $105 billion unfunded pension liability is the state’s primary credit challenge, which became harder to tackle with a state supreme court ruling in May that rejected cost-saving retirement benefit cuts on constitutional grounds, Moody’s said.

    Moody’s noted there is no floor on how low state credit ratings could sink although most are at the Aa1 or Aaa levels due to states’ ability to control spending and raise revenue.

    (Reporting by Karen Pierog; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

    1. Skippy

      I’m taking a much more expansive purview, from a macro level, as compared to your narrow micro.

      Skippy… BTW I don’t put much faith in so called rating agencies after the epic failure to price risk leading up too and post GFC.

      1. Ishmael

        Oh so the whole state of Illinois is too micro for you and you do not put too much faith in rating agencies when down grades can cost huge sums. I believe the downgrade by Moody’s triggered a $3 billion payment by Chicago. In fact your comment about rating agencies is half correct. By the time they issue a warning you are far behind the curve which just supports the article above further.

        Sorry, I failed to understand you were such a big picture guy.

        1. Skippy

          Sorry that you start your observations near term and not the decades it took to get there, and why….

    2. ks

      Really Venezuela if it had decent govt instead of a bunch of communists would probably be (and at once was) a decent place to live.

      Really? When was that? I lived there during the pre-Chavez years and remember potholes, crumbling infrastructure, crime, corruption, an upper class that fancied itself part of the French and Spanish aristocracy and partied away the country’s oil revenues, IMF structural adjustments that sent the poor into the streets rioting and lowered middle class expectations. They did have beautiful parks and a great subway system but “communists” have been known to build those things too. I have absolutely no sympathy for ex-pat Venezuelans grumbling about no longer having the lion’s share of everything.

    3. ks

      Really Venezuela if it had decent govt instead of a bunch of communists would probably be (and at once was) a decent place to live.

      Really? When was that? I lived there during the pre-Chavez years and remember potholes, crumbling infrastructure, crime, corruption, an upper class that fancied itself part of the French and Spanish aristocracy and partied away the country’s oil revenues, IMF structural adjustments that sent the poor into the streets rioting and lowered middle class expectations. They did have beautiful parks and a great subway system but “communists” have been known to build those things too. I have absolutely no sympathy for ex-pat Venezuelans grumbling about no longer having the lion’s share of everything.

  12. Matthew G. Saroff

    Alaska got the highest rating?

    That is nuts!

    Half the state got busted for corruption in the past decade, including a Senator, though Stevens’ conviction was overturned on technical grounds.

    Alaska? Seriously?

    I will agree that Alaskan politicians work on behalf of the taxpayers, but the taxpayers in Alaska are the oil companies.

  13. Carlos

    How much joy can they get by taking money for favours anyway?

    I would feel abused and manipulated. I don’t want to be someone’s bitch.

    That’s just me, looks like the whole world thinks different.

  14. Knute Rife

    Wherever you’re talking about, at least it isn’t Utah, where the economic core is fraud, all politics is in closed back rooms, and the previous two attorneys general are under indictment for influence peddling.

  15. Mark Alexander

    The report on my new home state, Vermont, sounds about right. Our score is poor, but mostly because there seem to be few, if any, safeguards against corruption. Actual corruption is pretty low (though appears to be increasing, worryingly). As the report says, there’s nothing much here to steal. Also, the ratio of citizens to representatives is very low; I see my state rep around town pretty regularly, and have talked with her about govt. issues a few times.

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