Watchdog gives MN state government a 'D-’ for transparency, integrity

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Minnesota didn't do well on a national report about integrity in state government.

But then again, not one state in the union passed with flying colors, with the leader of the pack, Alaska, scoring a "C" grade.

The 2015 State Integrity Investigation, released late Sunday by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, gave Minnesota a "D-" when it comes to public access to information, how the government handles conflicts of interest, and a number of other criteria.

This is despite the fact that the state has received praise for its "dearth of scandal," the organization says; likewise, the Star Tribune writes Minnesota has a "reputation for relatively clean government."

What are we doing wrong?

We'll get into the details in a second, but this graphic shows how we were rated in all of the group's categories:

 (Photo: Center for Public Integrity)

(Photo: Center for Public Integrity)

According to the Center for Public Integrity, which describes itself as a "nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations" that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, one of Minnesota's nagging problems is the Government Data Practices Act. It "creates a presumption that state and local government records are accessible to the public," but is largely toothless when it comes to the state legislature, the organization argues.

The report says both the state House and Senate are "not required to adhere" to it, and the rules make it difficult for John Q. Public to watch potentially important goings on. The end result is that "small groups of legislators can meet in private to discuss legislation without needing to inform the public," the group says.

In a Monday press release received by BringMeTheNews, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Democrat, says we "should be appalled at this report," saying it's "not surprising after mockery of legislative process that occurred on the last night of the 2015 session" – when lawmakers passed a big bill in the final seconds, despite legislators arguing they hadn't read it. He called this situation "unacceptable."

The St. Cloud Times also noted a meeting in May between representatives from both parties. They met "in secret" to talk about a provision that would take the state auditor's responsibility of local auditing away – that bill was then passed and signed, and it's led to a notable public battle from the office.

Another issue is the Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, a group designed to handle conflicts of interest, keep an eye on gifts to public officials and much more. The report says the board is understaffed and dependent on the legislature – the body it's supposed to be watching – for funding.

Additionally, the way Minnesota regulates lobbyists and other issues reveals "the overall weakness in how the legislature handles conflicts of interest," the Center said.

“Minnesota, which at one time was at the forefront of these issues, is now so entrenched that we’ve stood still in comparison with other states,” David Schultz, political science professor at St. Paul's Hamline University, told the organization.

The national picture

In the overall ranking Minnesota falls somewhere in the middle, coming in 28th place.

Alaska, which got the highest grade, apparently has the most accountable state government. Michigan ranked dead last with an "F" (though 10 other states also received the failing grade).

Only three states scored higher than a "D+," the Center for Public Integrity says.

One pervasive problem is presented by the digital age and widespread internet access, both of which have brought many to "expect government to not just publish data online, but to do so in 'open data' formats that allow users to download and analyze the information."

But the group says that hasn't exactly been the case, with relatively few states having "adopted open data measures."

It was a major reason the grades in the State Integrity Investigation were so low, according to the report. The Center said there were questions in each category dealing with whether governments "are meeting open data principles."

"Almost universally, the answer was no," they said.

You can browse the full report here.

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