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Texas Gets a D-minus in State Integrity

Who cares if it’s ”technically passing;” we’re all grounded.

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It would seem that Texas politics could be a smidge more virtuous. A few days ago, the Pulitzer Prize-award-winning investigative news organization the Center for Public Integrity unveiled the findings of its second State Integrity Investigation. So how did we fare? Texas earned a D-minus, and we rank thirty-eighth in America when it comes to state integrity. Not good. What’s worse is this is a dip from the previous “Corruption Risk Report Card” the Center for Public Integrity released (in 2012) when Texas received a D-plus and ranked twenty-seventh. Perhaps there is some solace to take in the fact that the highest grade received by any state was a C (that gold star [or, fool’s gold star?] goes to Alaska), and a total of eleven states failed, including two of our neighbors, Oklahoma and Louisiana.  

The investigation is a thorough appraisal of the systems in place at the state government level that are meant to keep them accountable and transparent to the public. In methodology jargon, it’s an assessment of  “the existence, effectiveness, and accessibility (i.e. citizen access) of key governance and anti-corruption mechanisms through a qualitative and indicator-based research process.” The research doesn’t take specific corrupt occurrences into account, but rather, it examines the “institutional safeguards used to combat corruption like openness, transparency, and accountability.” Essentially, what each state does or doesn’t do to make sure corruption can’t be an issue in the first place.  

The center categorizes its findings into thirteen sections, further dividing each into de jure and de facto indicators (“in law” and “in practice,” for those who need a Latin refresher course). Each of the indicators are essentially questions—245 of them this year and 330 in the previous study—that the center’s independent researchers and journalists ask as a means to determine a state’s integrity and risk of corruption. (You can read an in-depth look at the methodology here.) As an example, when it comes to lobbying practices, the center asked, “In practice, lobbying disclosure records are independently audited.” Texas received a zero, a grade determined based on the following: 

The Texas Ethics Commission, which enforces lobbying regulations, has the power to conduct audits with a vote of six of its eight members, but the commission doesn’t reveal audits and has been prevented from conducting audits by staff and funding shortages, say ethics commission officials. The Legislature in 2015 authorized funding for additional enforcement that is expected to open the door to more audits by the agency.

It’s a comprehensive study, one that the center calls a mix of social science and journalism. Each state has its own journalist hired for the investigation, and Texas got Austin-based David Montgomery, whose credentials include nearly fifty years of experience: two decades as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Washington bureau chief and a stint at the now defunct Dallas Times Herald

In an essay to accompany his findings, Montgomery mentions that in Governor Greg Abbott’s first State of the State Address, he asked lawmakers to tackle ethics reform. Abbott said, “the most important commodity that we have as elected officials is the bond that we share with our constituents” and that “transparency—and rising above the appearance of impropriety—will strengthen that bond.” Ultimately, Montgomery sums up Texas as a state in which “lip service on ethics trumps actual results.”  

One place Texas shines is in our “State Budget Processes,” a category where it received an “A” and “Internal Auditing,” an area in which it received a “B”. This is probably due to the fact that when Rick Perry was governor, he signed a number of measures that championed online accessibility of the state budget. Thanks to this, a few years ago, Sunshine Week, an organization that tracks public access to information, ranked Texas number one in government transparency.

Elsewhere, Texas did quite abysmally. The state received an “F” in 8 of the 13 categories: Public Access to Information; Political financing; Electoral Oversight; Executive Accountability; Legislative Accountability; Judicial Accountability; State Civil Service Management; and Lobbying Disclosure.

Texas is one of a handful of states that allow unlimited campaign contributions, which contribute to  “a culture of corruption that starts at the very top,” as Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, puts it.

Montgomery also pointed out that our current attorney general, Ken Paxton, is currently facing two first-degree securities fraud charges and a third-degree felony charge, which could find the AG in the slammer for five to 99 years. But who could forget one of the major recent scandals facing Texas’ government? Remember that time Rick Perry was indicted for two felonies by a grand jury? The charge was an abuse of official capacity, a first degree felony and coercion of a public official, a third degree felony. Perry threatened to veto $7.5 million in funding for the Public Integrity Unit if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (who oversees the unit) didn’t resign after she was she was convicted and arrested for drunk driving. Perry eventually did slash the budget, half of which was later restored. Coincidently, Lehmberg was investigating  Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which has been the subject of scandal for distributing grant money to the wrong people. Allegedly, Perry has close ties with people from CPRIT. The charges for coercion have been dropped, but Perry still faces five to 99 years for abuse of power.

This calls to mind our own report card findings of Governor Perry when he left office.  To send him off, we gave the governor a “C” in the subject of Transparency and Ethics, and wondered if Texans really care that much about those things. Most probably don’t; or maybe it’s just that how the Cowboys are playing (2-7!!!) is more of a priority.

If you want to take the deep dive into the center’s findings, you can do so here.

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