Texas Gets a Low Grade in Corruption Prevention
A new study examining how well-protected state governments are against the possibility of corruption gives Texas gets a D+, overall, with various strengths and weaknesses.
The State Integrity Index is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. It’s a measure not of corruption but of the potential for corruption in each of the 50 states.
None of the states got an A. Five states got B’s, 19 states got C’s,18 got D’s, and eight received failing grades.
Texas got a D-plus, scoring 68 on a scale of 100. That puts this state 27th among the 50 states.
One of the first things you might notice about the Texas report is that the state actually got a B-minus in having a legal framework in place to combat corruption. The problem, says Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen Texas, is that that score plummets when you check how well those laws are implemented.
“What we see time and time again, we pass relatively good laws, but when you get right down to how they work we score horribly on just about every matrix,” Smith said.
Texas received an F for its implementation of anti-corruption laws. That put the state near the bottom in terms of the gap between what ethics and disclosure laws are on the books and how well the state enforces them.
For example, Smith says the state has pretty good personal-finance disclosure laws for state lawmakers, “but when you get into the database you find it’s almost impossible to search a lot of the records.”
“And then the data you need to determine whether somebody has a conflict of interest because they have a partnership is virtually blocked because unless you own more than 51 percent of a company, you don’t have to disclose it,” Smith said. “So you never know whether someone’s got an interest in a filling station that going to be benefited by a highway going by it.”
Another category in which the state’s implementation hasn’t measured up to its intentions is campaign finance reporting.
“We do pretty strongly on some of the campaign finance regulation, on the regulation of corporate money,” said Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice, an organization that follows campaign donations and spending. “And we do very strongly on what you have to disclose to the Texas Ethics Commission, which is the one that tracks campaign contributions.”
But the state also allows unlimited donations. Which has led to a handful of mega-donors, such as home builder Bob Perry. He’s given tens of millions of dollars over the years to state lawmakers and political action committees.
As for keeping track of lobbying of public officials, the state makes everyone register and fill out disclosure forms. However, “our lobbyists don’t have to disclose exactly whom they’re lobbying,” McDonald said. “They don’t have to disclose exactly what agencies, what branches of government. And while on the books we make them disclose what areas they’re working, in practice you can’t see what they’re working. They have a list of 50 issues. Most lobbyists check them all just to cover their bases.”
And there are no limits to how much a lobbyist can spend on individual lawmakers. Most states have limits.
The state integrity investigation also examined the process for citizens to get basic government information or to see for themselves the decision-making process among lawmakers and state agencies. The report gave Texas a C for an easy enough, but not uniform, request process, and for its requirement that a state agency must answer information requests within 10 days.
But an agency can appeal freedom of information requests to the attorney general if it wants to postpone or block the information’s release. It’s a move that is all too familiar in Texas, says Michael Schneider, the Texas Association of Broadcasters’ newsroom and legal services director.
“And if you look at the numbers, the number of requests for the AG to rule on something has gone up exponentially in the last 10-15 years,” Schneider said.
Schneider says the extra delay can keep news organizations from doing a thorough job of covering important topics. Even a month or two that it might take to get information can mean the public is uninformed when it comes to a critical vote.
“And even if you do get ultimately a good ruling from the attorney general’s office, the next thing that happens is that the governmental body decides to sue,” Schneider said. “They sue the AG’s office to prevent release. And we’re seeing, again, another increase in that sort of activity happening.”
The integrity report’s authors say they expect some lawmakers will look through the admittedly dense data to see where states can do better.
Look for more reports on this project over the next several months.