Stateline Story

Oversight Lax Among Lawmakers, Study Shows

State legislatures that pride themselves on being portrayed as bastions of integrity often are in reality political bodies where hidden conflicts of interest and personal gain often win out over the public good, a new study concludes.

The two-year study by the independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity found that 27 of the 50 state legislatures have no independent oversight of members' ethical conduct.

That means decisions about questionable or illegal activities are often left in the hands of lawmakers who may be guilty themselves of wrongdoing.

Among the more significant study findings:  

  • One in five legislators sits on a committee that regulates his or her own professional or business interest.
  • About one in four are employed or receive income from state agencies they regulate and vote to fund.
  • About 18 percent have financial ties to businesses or organizations that lobby state government, and many those lawmakers are actually registered lobbyist themselves for their industries.

The study also found that nepotism is rooted in state politics all over the country. In Oregon, for example, the center found that 15 out of 58 state officeholders have placed spouses on the public payroll as aides. Those same lawmakers, in 1999, voted a 60 percent increase in salaries for legislative assistants.

The effect that nepotism and the influence of key committee members with special interest ties can have on legislation was illustrated in 1999 when Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland tried and failed to pass a measure that would have abolished the scandal-ridden county sheriffs hiring system.

The most vocal opposition came from eight lawmakers "with family ties to local sheriffs" who sat on key committees responsible for reviewing the proposal, the Center's report on the study noted.

The findings reflected a Stateline.org story earlier this year that found that a number of state campaign financial disclosure laws are even weaker than federal measures. The report also appeared to support a separate Stateline.org story outlining how lawmakers, in their efforts to update or "modernize" existing public disclosure and sunshine laws, have actually made them weaker.

For their part, most lawmakes interviewed during the course of the study defended the lack of disclosure and ethical oversight by stressing their "part-time" status as public servants. Some of them who had spouses or other relatives put on the state payroll, even went so far as to suggest they were simply trying to make ends meet like any other American family under financial pressure.

"I think the average person believes...that there is some kind of check on all of this. And what we've found is there really is no check...That's probably the most disturbing thing about our study," said the center's managing editor Bill Allison.