Stateline Story

Legislators Interests Veiled From Public, Study Says

  • September 24, 2004
  • By Erin Madigan

Nearly half of the states fail to provide the public with adequate information about legislators' financial and personal interests, according to a new report by the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

Overall, 24 states received a failing grade from the center, which evaluated the effectiveness of state disclosure practices and also scrutinized financial statements filed by 6,516 state lawmakers in 2002 in the 47 states that require reporting.

The Sept. 24 report, called "Personal Politics," gave satisfactory marks to 21 states and "excellent" grades to five states.

Washington state earned the highest marks for its strong disclosure requirements, scoring 93.5 out of a possible 100 points on the 43-question survey that looked at public access to state legislators' financial information. The Evergreen State was followed by Hawaii, Texas, Alaska and Arizona, which all scored above 80 points. Utah's record was ranked lowest; it scored only 6.5 points out of a possible 100.

The center flunked states that scored lower than 60, including Idaho, Michigan and Vermont, which don't require lawmakers to file financial reports.

Many state laws are written in a way that lawmakers are able to avoid reporting large components of their income or assets, the report said. A dozen states, for example, don't require legislators to report real-estate holdings, 12 states don't ask lawmakers to report their spouse's employment, 15 don't ask for information about spouses' investments and 20 exclude reporting on spouses' real-estate holdings.

"A lot of the ethics laws in the states are window-dressings so that lawmakers can say, Look we have all these things because we're really concerned with how the public sees us,'" Leah Rush, the center's director of state projects, told Stateline.org. "What we're trying to do is make these laws work in a real way."

The last time the center looked at financial disclosure laws was 1999, but Rush said it isn't fair to compare results of the two surveys because the grading criteria changed.

The report also found albeit not surprisingly, its authors said that a significant number of state legislators could use their elected posts for personal and financial gain because of ties to a business, employer, stock investment or directorship.

More than 28 percent of state lawmakers who reported their finances in 2001 served on a legislative committee with authority over at least one of their personal interests, the report found. In addition, 18 percent cited ties to lobbying groups and 10 percent were employed by other government entities, such as public schools or universities.

The report includes a state-by-state ranking of how common the practice is for lawmakers to serve on legislative panels that have oversight of personal interests. However, the center cautions that large discrepancies in state reporting requirements make it hard to compare data.

For example, the report ranks Kentucky as having the highest percentage of lawmakers 57 percent assigned to posts that could be self-serving, and it ranks Louisiana last, with only 5.9 percent. However, Kentucky's reporting laws are much stronger, ranking 15th overall compared to Lousiana in 42nd place. Therefore, the ties in Kentucky simply may be more transparent, not necessarily more prevalent, Rush said.

The report found that 5.4 percent of legislators failed to file reports despite mandatory disclosure laws in 47 states. In addition, the study's authors personally contacted 433 lawmakers in Idaho, Michigan and Vermont, which don't require financial reporting, but only 33 legislators responded to the request.

The project was funded by the Joyce Foundation and the Ford Foundation