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In State Rankings on Ethics and Transparency, Alaska Wins and Michigan Loses

In all, 11 states received failing grades of F in a study of state ethics and transparency laws by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

By Travis Fain

Virginia shot up in a 50-state ranking of state government integrity released Monday, riding ethics reforms approved over the last two years from a spot at 47 all the way up to No. 16.

Don't celebrate too hard, though. Virginia, like 36 other states, still got a "D."

The study, a year-long collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, concluded that state government nearly everywhere suffers from "pervasive secrecy, weak oversight and questionable ethics."

"State governments are plagued by conflicts of interests and cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, while open-records and ethics laws are often toothless and laced with exemptions," the groups said in a press release.

Virginia got an "F" the last time these groups released their rankings, in 2012. Since then the state has seen "perhaps the most dramatic reforms" in the country following the conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, the report states.

The study's methodology changed as well, making comparisons difficult. Virginia's ethics reforms, "while significant, fall far short of what's needed," the report states. "Still, they helped push the state's grade up to a D."

Alaska was No. 1, with a "C." Michigan finished dead last. The study's project director said that, to get an "A," a state would have to "exhibit uniform best practices" for nearly all of the 245 questions the study sought to answer.

"It's not surprising that no state would exhibit uniform best practices across all these categories," project manager Nicholas Kusnetz said in an email.

The study quotes journalists in all 50 states. Dave Ress of the Daily Press was quoted in the Virginia report, discussing the fine line between campaign finance and bribery, given Virginia's ongoing commitment to unlimited political donations from people and companies alike.

"If XYZ company drops $5,000 into a campaign fund, there's a reason for that besides desiring good government," Ress said. "If a legislator [then] went along with a vote the company wanted, is that bribery?"

The report dinged Virginia's Freedom of Information Act for its massive list of exemptions -- there are 170 or so -- including the fact that it doesn't cover the State Corporation Commission, which regulates various industries in Virginia. The state's broad "working papers" exemption, which the governor, numerous other state officials and top local government officers can use to shield a wealth of documents, also earned low marks.

Del. Todd Gilbert, who shepherded ethics reform through two separate legislative sessions -- one in 2014, then a redo this year -- said he doesn't put much stock in these sorts of rankings.

"I have always believed that they skewed in favor of perception in many instances," said Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. "That said, I always believed we made significant improvements in Virginia, not only in perception but in substance."

Megan Rhyne, who heads the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said she felt Virginia's ranking was unfairly low last time out, and she was one of the people who called for a new methodology.

The old system relied too much on what states have on paper without accounting enough for the way policies are implemented, she said. This year's study coins this "the enforcement gap."

"I'm not surprised we moved up," said Rhyne, a consistent advocate for transparency reforms in Virginia. "I'm surprised we moved up as much as we did."

(c)2015 the Daily Press

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