State government tends to receive little scrutiny from the media – in fact, less all the time – but the potential for corruption is just as great, if not more so, than in Washington. The playing field is much smaller, and so the incestuousness is potentially greater. States often lack the funding and capacity to establish effective oversight organizations, so inappropriate – even criminal – behavior can go unchecked.
In just the past year, a slew of outrageous political scandals have tarnished state capitals and infuriated taxpayers. Among the most nefarious: Alabama’s pay-to-play scandal involving gambling interests, and a former New York comptroller’s guilty plea in the state’s pay-to-play pension investigation.
At the same time, watchdog journalism at the state level is taking a massive hit. In 2009, the American Journalism Review (AJR) discovered that there had been a 32 percent decrease in the number of capital reporters since its prior survey in 2003. The result is dramatically decreased scrutiny of state government. “The oversight, the watchdogs won’t be there,” a Las Vegas Review-Journal capital reporter remarked to AJR. “It’s a benefit to society that won’t exist anymore.”
The State Accountability Project is an unprecedented effort to fill that void. The project – co-run by partner organizations the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International – will rely on original, in-depth reporting and data analysis to uncover areas of potential corruption in our statehouses. The end result: a 50-state ranking of government transparency and accountability.
The project will rely on reporters in each state to conduct on-the-ground research and reporting around a set of “integrity indicators.” Indicators will help measure corruption risks in a host of categories, such as campaign finance laws, lobbying disclosure, procurement, and budget transparency. Reporters will be responsible for answering a series of questions around each indicator and use a specialized scoring criteria to determine the number of points assigned to each answer. Ultimately, each state gets a score, a ranking, and a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of its laws, practices and procedures.
These findings will pinpoint areas in which states are successful as well as areas that could use improvement. By comparing and scoring the states, the project will encourage politicians and citizens to take action, providing a concrete roadmap for reform. We expect the project’s results will spark dialogue, initiate reform movements, and serve as the basis for new legislation.
The project’s findings will be released in early 2012.
Caitlin Ginley is a staff writer at The Center for Public Integrity