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Report Cards Rate States' Integrity

No state gets an “A” in a study of government transparency and corruption risk released by Public Radio International. Kansas ranked fairly high for safeguards, at number 9. Missouri finished at number 21.

Both received “passing grades,” but with lots of room for improvement. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see both states' complete report cards.

The joint effort by Public Radio International and the Institute for Public Integrity rates every state's transparency laws and their implementation on 350 specific criteria.

Kansas data was collected by former KPR statehouse reporter Peter Hancock. Hancock says in general, “here are very distinct political cultures between Kansas and Missouri." He quotes one person interviewed as saying, “things that Kansas considers to be a scandal wouldn't make page five news in Missouri – in Missouri it wouldn't be news till one of your speakers of the House goes to jail.

Mike Sherry, who has reported for the Business Journal and the Star was the point man in Missouri. He admits that his investigation did keep raising issues about the Legislature. Sherry says his sources reported a culture of lobbying and that the closeness between the legislators and the lobbyists is suspect.

Term Limits And Lobbying

He says unintended consequences of term limits is part of the problem, because when legislators' term limits are running out, many of them start looking for work as lobbyists. “It's a conflict of interest waiting to happen, and some people say it does happen.” says Sherry.

Though some lobbyists have a lot of power, Sherry says it's relatively easy for a dedicated citizen to check on lobbyist spending.

“Once you get the hang of the Missouri Ethics Commission's website, it's not that hard, really, to see who's contributing. That's really something that stands out positively for Missouri in... their transparency in terms of election and lobbying is really good,” Sherry said.

From the Kansas side, Peter Hancock comments that most direct spending on legislators must be reported in each state, but some of his sources were concerned that neither state requires the reporting of how much interest groups pay out to lobbyists.

He says a moderate-sized organization might spend $10,000 having a lobbyist to monitor a variety of things. But some larger companies, such as telephone companies, cable TV companies, oil companies and aviation companies, spend many times that amount bringing in an entire team of lobbyists.

"Grassroots" Campaigns That Aren't

Both reporters found instances of “astroturfing” – interest groups disguising themselves as grassroots movements by forming non-profit corporations – sometimes to advocate on issues, but often to get around campaign contribution disclosure laws.

Hancock described their familiar tactics: “They don't say, 'vote for' or 'vote against' this candidate, but they will say, 'did you know that candidate so-and-so voted to raise your taxes,' and, 'why don't you call representative so-and-so and tell him you don't like tax increases.'”

Hancock explains that avoiding a direct “vote for” statement avoids classification as “candidate ads,” but the effect is the same as candidate advertising.

In Missouri there is an additional problem involving campaign contributions, one it shares with only three other states: the state has no campaign contribution limits.

Missouri is also in the embarrassing position of having the state Supreme Court recently strike down the latest additions to its ethics law. If the scores were not already finalized, that could move Missouri down a couple of steps from its number 21 transparency ranking. Kansas came in at number 9, still only scoring a grade of “C.”

Not So Open Records

Hancock says one of Kansas' more significant problems is with an otherwise good open records law. Enforcement is largely left up to the discretion or local prosecutors or the Attorney General. Hancock says if those officials don't want to get into a “dicey situation” with an entity such as a school board or a university, they can simply choose not to follow suit and not to enforce open records.

Mike Sherry reported that a similar situation exists in Missouri: when access to records is denied, the only option is to get an attorney and sue, leaving the individual facing the much larger financial resources of the state or local government.

A Culture On The Edge?

Is money the heart of the transparency question, or is it culture? Mike Sherry quotes former Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin, who was jailed for selling his influence but now claims innocence as saying. “I created atmosphere, I threw caution to the wind.”

Sherry interprets the context of the quote as indicating that there was too much partying, too much socializing with lobbyists. He worries that when capitol culture dances to the tune of whoever pays for the party it may ignore the rhythm of the heartbeat of the people.

This has been the first in a series of KCUR reports in cooperation with the State Integrity Project of Public Radio International and the Institute for Public Integrity.

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