March 28, 2012
— Could it be that Minnesota’s history as a state generally free of corruption has increased its susceptibility for corruption?
The case can be made from a study that gives Minnesota a D-plus grade for the potential for government corruption. Because Minnesota’s history of political shenanigans is not as “rich” as some other states, some say the state has been lax in passing new and needed anti-corruption laws.
The study, released by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, isn’t all bad for the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Our ranking puts us, not on the extreme end, but right in the middle among the states — 25th out of 50. Still, D-plus is not good.
It will seem ironic to some that New Jersey, a state with a well-detailed history of political corruption, ranks No. 1 among states rated least corruptible, with a solid B-plus. Why? In large part, because New Jersey has passed a string of new laws to guard against future abuses.
Eight states have “F” grades — Michigan, North Dakota, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia.
As for Minnesota, Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, has remarked, “The real battle today is over an avalanche of money into politics and the disclosure requirements in Minnesota are just no longer sufficient.”
Money is always an issue in the fight against corruption. But it’s not just about disclosure requirements. The study says besides a lack of campaign finance oversight, Minnesota suffers from a deficiency in legislative openness, underfunded government watchdog organizations and insufficient consequences for ethics violations in the Legislature.
These charges are not just made off-hand. There are recent examples — one, last summer’s government shutdown, where efforts at an eventual deal to end the shutdown resulted in numerous details that became surprises. Lawmakers decided they could finish their business better with closed-door negotiations, but they sacrificed openness and accountability in the process.
Others have pointed to the state’s politicized election process for judges.
Financial disclosure rules for state lawmakers are particularly egregious, according to the study’s authors, because it ranks Minnesota 40th in the nation, with an “F” grade. There is oversight, but audits rarely occur — in part, because the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board lacks adequate resources.
When looking at Minnesota’s potential for corruption overall, it appears as if the glass is half-full. But that means it’s half-empty. For instance, the state has lived with generally strict ethics rules since 1994, but consequences for violations are often weak. There is no enforcement agency and no proscribed penalties, leading one observer to remark, “It is kind of like an honor system among a group of people who are not necessarily those who voters trust the most.”
Keeping Minnesota from falling into the bottom half of the corruption study is the fact that the Office of the Legislative Auditor is generally looked upon as fair, non-partisan and willing to act. We also have a strong open records law.
But the corruptibility study reminds us that we can, and should, do better. It does us no good to rest on our laurels, and certainly not in a political atmosphere where contentions between political parties seems to be increasing.
Clean government is not, like the arrival of spring, automatic. Unless strong systems are in place, unless watchdog organizations are adequately funded, and unless voters demand more, problems remain out there waiting to happen.