Policing Pennsylvania: State needs to spend more on ethics enforcement

By Tim Potts

Pennsylvania’s political leaders are hostile to enforcement.

If the governor’s proposed budget is adopted, Pennsylvania’s commitment to enforcement over the past four years (under both Democratic and Republican governors) will be:

  • Department of State (elections, campaign finance, and lobbying) – cut by 28.9%.
  • State Ethics Commission (other forms of public corruption) – cut by 23.5%.
  • Office of Open Records – cut by 6.1%.

By way of comparison, our House and Senate will spend 62% more on printing next year ($18,975,000) than the budgets of the three agencies combined ($11,713,000). The budget for restoration for the capitol ($1,720,000) will be greater than the budget for the State Ethics Commission ($1,680,000).

I hope you will follow the State Integrity Investigation with a project to create a template for a Public Integrity Budget.

This budget would include the cost of enforcement agencies, communication campaigns to raise public awareness about deficiencies in state laws and enforcement practices, and mandatory training for public officials in how to avoid criminal conduct.

The integrity budget for Pennsylvania is pathetically small, representing just 4/10,000th of one percent of the proposed state budget. But no one knows how large it should be to make the kind of difference in enforcement that is needed. With a template that calls for a certain amount per capita as a baseline budget, integrity advocates could have a real tool to pressure governors and legislators.

Also, it would be good to have some creative ideas for funding the Public Integrity Budget with something other than appropriations by the legislature. For example, fines imposed and pension funds surrendered as the result of criminal convictions of public officials are one potential source. Another is court fees, and a third is a Public Integrity Endowment, i.e. a lump sum set aside whose interest earnings (like a pension fund) would pay for the operations of enforcement agencies. Or all of the above.

Tim Potts is president of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, and he served as the peer reviewer forPennsylvani’s data in the State Integrity Investigation.

State Integrity Raises Questions About Good Government

By Gary Childress

Global Integrity’s research on corruption laws with state by state ranking certainly did bring questions in my mind.  I do understand that the research did not attempt to locate corruption but only looked at the structure to protect against corruption. One would expect a correlation between good corruption prevention structure and sound management and fiscal results.  Quite the reverse appears to be the case.

Recently 24/7 Wall St. published a study of the best-run states.  Wyoming was number one, Nebraskanumber two and if my memory serves me correctly the Dakotas were near the top.  The states at or near the top of Global Integrity’s list were typically the worst run states.

The various municipal credit rating organizations to the most part rate the bottom of the Global Integrity list higher credit than the top.  In fact most of the states with severe credit risk are near the top of Global’s ranking.  Why is there not a correlation?

I am not challenging your research, quite the reverse.  The fact that it leaves a question proves its merit.  As stated above: Why is there not a correlation?  This could be the question of another study.  The answers might be helpful to all states. 

There are likely many things going on other than the legal structure.  What are they?

Gary Childress is a retired businessman who divides his time between Wyoming and Connecticut.

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Is it a B? No, whatever Patrick Stewart may say, Massachusetts didn’t earn a B on the State Integrity #corruptionrisk report card. See what grade we did earn. (Story.)

Citizen-led group pushes for ethics reform in Arkansas

Every year Paul Spencer teaches the U.S. Constitution to the students in his government and politics class at Catholic High School For Boys in Little Rock, Arkansas. Over the last few years, Spencer found himself increasingly upset as he recited the words and recounted the intent of America’s founders.

“I noticed myself getting a little more angry every consecutive year about how things are in government, as opposed to how they are in the textbook,” Spencer said.

Now, Spencer and a group of motivated Arkansas citizens are doing what they can to change the way government operates in their state. Spencer is the leader of Regnat Populus 2012, the organization behind a grassroots movement to pass new ethics laws in Arkansas through a citizen-led ballot initiative. If Spencer’s group obtains the required number of signatures, the people of Arkansas will have the chance to push back against big money in government, double the time a lawmaker has to wait before becoming a lobbyist, and prohibit gift-giving from lobbyists to lawmakers.

Regnat Populus 2012 takes its name from the Latin for phrase “The people rule,” an expression that serves as Arkansas’ state motto, and which Paul Spencer and his partners hope to prove is still true.

Spencer’s leadership in the movement grew out of his brief involvement with Occupy Little Rock, where he Spencer and his wife encountered like-minded academics, organizers, and activists, including Marie Mainard O’Connell, a stay-at-home mom and Presbyterian youth minister.

“I’m very excited about [the ballot initiative],” O’Connell said. “I don’t know of any other occupy groups that have led to something quite like this.”

The group’s volunteer legal team has revived and updated a past version of an ethics reform initiative. The new proposal has three objectives:

  • Prohibit direct corporate and union contributions to state political campaigns.
  • Increase the ‘cooling-off’ period for former legislators to become lobbyists from 1 year to 2 years.
  • Ban all gifts from lobbyists to legislators.

Arkansas Senate chamber

O’Connell has already heard some complaining about the proposal from her acquaintances in state government.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “most of their arguments are along the lines of, ‘We’ve gotten used to a broken system.’”

Spencer said the ethics reform effort has picked up attention and support thanks to the release of the State Integrity Investigation, whichgave Arkansas an overall grade of D+ on its Corruption Risk Report Card.

“[The Arkansas grade] motivated a lot of the local media to kind of, throw their hands up and say, ‘This is what we’ve been saying all along, and there has to be something we can do with it’” Spencer said.

On April 4 Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel approved the “The Campaign Finance and Lobbying Act of 2012” initiative, opening the door for the group to begin collecting signatures. Arkansas law requires the support of 8 percent of the total vote in the most recent gubernatorial election before an initiative appears on the ballot, which means Regnat Populus 2012 has to collect 62,507 signatures before the July 1 deadline.

Spencer and O’Connell are confident that the people of Arkansas are on their side, particularly after a recent statewide poll found 69 percent of respondents supported the initiative; only 18 percent were opposed, and 13 percent were undecided. Most encouraging were high polling numbers in the ideologically conservative northwest corner of the state, which Spencer takes as evidence that ethics reform has bipartisan support.

Spencer was thrilled with those results, but says there’s a lot to be done: The group still needs volunteer canvassers across the state, and needs to raise money to fund travel and organization expenses.

The hard work of door-to-door, person-to-person signature gathering will soon be underway, pitting the group in a race against the calendar. At the moment, Regnat Populus 2012 is trying to reach out to any and all supporters of better, more accountable government for the state of Arkansas.

“We’re looking for people of goodwill,” Spencer said. “And that’s the only criteria that you actually have to have. We believe strongly that the people, if given the option to act in a nonpartisan, non-divisive way, can really make some changes.”

Maine Governor, House Majority Leader push for reform after "F" grade

Conservative Gov. Paul LePage and his liberal counterparts in the Maine state legislature disagree on many issues, but the two sides have found common ground: An ‘F’ on Maine’s report card is unacceptable. 

LePage, an outspoken Republican in his first term, is encouraging a piece of legislation that would expose state officials’ conflicts of interest and decrease the chances for legislators to line their own pockets with taxpayer money. Gov. LePage said this is the kind of reform that Maine needs to enact to improve the failing grade Maine recieved on its Corruption Risk Report Card.

On the legislative side, House Minority Leader Emily Cain, (D-Orono), said the report card raises substantive issues, and might inspire a bipartisan task force to review the findings and suggest changes going into the next legislative session.

The reform-minded responses are an encouraging sign for a state with nine ‘F’s and two ‘D’s out of the 14 categories under review in the State Integrity Investigation.

In the current session, LePage has already introduced LD 1806, a bill that would require public disclosure from state legislators, constitutional officers and executive branch members if the official or the official’s family member has an ownership or management-level position in a company that receives more than $10,000 from the state.

The proposed increase in transparency would set Maine on a path to an improved grade on its Corruption Risk Report Card, LePage told the Bangor Daily News:

"This is the direction we need to move in to improve Maine’s grade. It’s clear that many states struggle with this issue. However, it is an issue that I will continue to work on improving on behalf of the Maine taxpayer."

Cain floated the idea of a task force to review the problems highlighted in Maine’s failing grade, saying the group would “focus on feedback from the public and experts.”

A spokeswoman for Cain said the House Minority Leader was taking the idea to other leaders in the legislature to gain approval, in the hopes that the group could make suggestions before the legislature reconvenes in 2013. The spokeswoman said the task force would not look into “any one specific point from the report, but potentially use the report as a jumping-off point.”

With the statements from LePage and Cain, Maine becomes the fifth state to use State Integrity Investigation findings to support reform proposals, joining DelawareMichiganOhio and South Carolina.

If you live in Maine and want to encourage your state legislators and Gov. LePage to enact reforms, click here to send the Maine Corruption Risk Report Card and a personalized message to your elected officials. Keep track of this and other movements toward more open, accountable state government onour Reform Efforts page.

Fines and financing: An attempt at campaign finance accountability in South Dakota

South Dakota Representative Jon Hansen thinks transparent campaign financing is worth more than $50 a day. That’s the fine that the state assesses campaigns for late reports, with a maximum total penalty of $3,000.

But Hansen (R-Dell Rapids) doesn’t like that wealthy campaigns can just put off filing a report until they see fit — or, in some cases, until after a nomination or election.

“In South Dakota our filing deadlines, as they are, are very close to an actual election,” Hansen said. “And that makes sense on one level, because you want to be able to see as many contributors to a candidate’s campaign as possible. But it does make it easy to say, ‘Oops, I forgot to file,’ and just wait until after an election to file a report.”

Hansen (pictured, right) thinks it’s critical that citizens are given a chance to review who is funding a campaign, and how a candidate is spending those funds. In the past, candidates have chosen to pay down fines in order to avoid filing, or simply not paid at all: In some cases, the secretary of state’s office has been forced to hire collections agencies to get candidates to pay fines they owe.

To try and remedy what Hansen views is an inadequate penalty for lax accounting, he proposed HB 1112, a bill that would disqualify potential candidates who have failed to file a campaign finance report. Under the proposal, the secretary of state’s office would not certify a candidate who had an outstanding report due. Last week, Hansen’s bill passed through the House State Affairs Committee — “one of the most difficult committees to get a bill out of,” he said — by a vote of 9-4, which the freshman representative saw as a good sign that the bill will become law.

After some discussion of the measure, Hansen agreed to add an amendment that would exempt accounting errors which are discovered after the fact, saying that the bill was not meant to create a “gotcha situation.” Instead, it was an attempt to force greater responsibility from political candidates and their campaign bank accounts.

“There’s a big movement — there’s always been a large movement to increase the openness in government,” Hansen said. “Any time you can do that, you’ll create more public trust.”

Unfortunately, Hansen was badly outnumbered by legislative colleagues who like things the way they are: On Monday, the South Dakota House of Representatives voted down the bill, 65-4. After the bill was voted down, Hansen would not give up on the proposal, saying he would rework the bill and enter it again during the next session.

Unsure independence: Political interference in state insurance policy

Insurance commissioners are typically among the least-known, least-publicized officials in state government. Last month, one commissioner found a way to make news: Without warning, he resigned.

David Black (pictured, right) had only served as director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance for 10 months before he announced his resignation in an email to colleagues on Dec. 28. Black’s e-mail offered little explanation for the timing of his announcement.

“After reflection,” he wrote, “I decided last week it would be best for me to resign as Director of the Agency.”

Black has yet to give a more thorough account, and the state government hasn’t provided any answers, either.  The suddenness of Black’s departure and the silence that followed have left the curious to speculate on what led to his decision. Local observers are quick to point out that Black’s agency had become embroiled in controversy in the weeks prior to his exit.

In March, Black was among 12 panelists tasked with determining how the state would implement a health insurance exchange, a crucial aspect of federal health care reform. The panel was supposed to be an independent body studying whether South Carolina’s exchanges should be established by federal or state officials. But the independence of the panel and its findings have been severely undermined.

A Dec. 14 report in the Charleston Post and Courier found that Gov. Nikki Haley and her staff attempted to dictate the panel’s findings before the group even met.  In an e-mail to a committee member who wrote much of the panel’s final report, Haley (pictured, right) wrote, “The whole point of this commission should be to figure out how to opt out and how to avoid a federal takeover, NOT create a state exchange.” Haley’s influence over the group – which ultimately followed her orders, recommending that the state not create its own exchange – looked even more suspicious because the governor’s office failed to disclose the e-mails after a request from the Post and Courier. The messages only surfaced when the paper made a separate records request to another state agency.

Following the story’s publication, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General, asking for an investigation into whether Haley’s administration had misused part of the $1 million federal grant used to fund the panel.

“Spending taxpayer funds to construct an ideologically-motivated façade not only violates Congress’s intent, but also the public’s trust in government,” Harkin wrote.

Only a week after Harkin’s letter, David Black resigned his post.  Black told Cynthia Williams, another participant on the insurance panel, that he had not received instructions from Haley and had tried to do his job in an honorable way. But, as Williams said at the time of Black’s resignation, the publishing of Haley’s e-mails had “cast a pall over the whole thing.”

Black’s brief tenure in South Carolina government is a powerful lesson in the value of an independent insurance commissioner, and what happens when that independence is tarnished by political influence.