The results from the latest Center for Public Integrity rating of state government ethics are in. The good news is that Minnesota did not fail and it was not the worst. The bad news is that the state received a D-minus. Minnesota scored 62 out of 100 points, placing it 28th overall in terms of state ethics and integrity — a thoroughly mediocre yet entirely predictable evaluation given previous reports from the center.
For years I have written about Minnesota’s overblown and undeserved reputation for clean government. It never used to be like that. From the 1970s up until the early 1990s Minnesota was a national leader when it came to political ethics. Its public funding for campaigns was a model for encouraging small donors and mitigating special interests. The gift ban law was a progressive instrument to break lobbyist-legislator connections. And state laws mandating economic disclosure for legislators and reporting by lobbyists and the interests they represent were powerful tools of transparency.
But by 1995 it all ended after what have come to be called the Marty reforms (named after DFL Sen. John Marty) were adopted in 1994. Since then, many of the old-time legislators have remained resentful of the fact that they can no longer accept gifts and goodies from lobbyists and party again like it was 1993. New legislators do not remember the old days when lobbyists roamed the halls with gifts, and lobbyists themselves are distraught that they cannot schmooze legislators at a party over a glass of beer. Overall, many forces have come to conspire to thwart new reforms and undo existing ones. Minnesota has rested on its laurels and since the 1990s it has done next to nothing to keep pace with the evolving standards of conduct expected of public officials. The result is it is now no longer leading the pack but pulling up the rear in terms of ethics in government.
In the Center for Public Integrity’s 2009 study on legislative financial disclosure laws, Minnesota received an F grade, coming in 40th among the 50 states. Previously in 1999 the same study ranked Minnesota 35th and in 2006 39th. A steady fall. Minnesota is deficient in the range of disclosure it asks of legislators and also in terms of them updating that information.
A 2012 study by the center measured political accountability and risk of corruption in the state. Minnesota received a D-plus grade, finishing 25th among states. Notable in this study, Minnesota received a D-minus when it comes to effective conflict-of-interest laws, a D on political financing, and an F on lobbyist disclosure.
Now we have the center’s 2015 study. Across 13 dimensions that rank ethics, Minnesota generally performs poorly. Ethics is defined broadly to include accountability, transparency, and openness when it comes to finances, processes, and procedures. It applies to lawmaking, conflicts of interest, campaign financing, and enforcement of laws. The center’s report is the most comprehensive study yet of state governments including Minnesota.
Where does Minnesota do well? It does well in terms of internal auditing (grade of B, ranked 10th nationally), largely due in part to the legislative auditor. Minnesota also scores a B-minus, ranked sixth, for election administration. After that, across a range of measures its performance is from average to failing. It gets a D-plus for political financing, D-minus for lobbyist disclosure, and D-minus for civil service management. But it earns F grades for accountability for all three branches, as well as F’s for public access to information, state ethics enforcement authority, and management of state fund.
It is the case that no state did well in terms of ethics and integrity. We are more than 40 years away from Watergate. Its legacy initially led to a push for ethics reform across the country, but two generations later many of these reforms have been retrenched, and elected officials no longer feel the need to push for clean government. Similarly, the public, while polls suggest they want ethics reform, do not see it as a top priority. They are more worried about other reforms. The irony, of course, is that far more fundamental reforms regarding the economy, taxes, or the environment are all but impossible because of the entrenchment of special interests that make other reforms impossible, including in Minnesota.
One classic response to the awful grades Minnesota received is the argument that these ethics laws are not necessary, that the state is clean. The reality is one does not know that because in so many cases the disclosure rules are so bad one really does not know what is going on or what factors really influence decisions. In short, lacking sufficient disclosure rules Minnesotans have no idea if in fact the political system is corrupt.
Will this latest report from the Center for Public Integrity be a wakeup call for Minnesota public officials to act? Probably not. Nothing in this report creates a political incentive to make changes, and except for a couple of legislators, there are no ethics reforms champions in state government. Instead, this report will be criticized at best, ignored most likely, and denial will rule the day.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul.