North Dakota's Center For Public Integrity Ranking Isn't Worth Much

Yesterday I was quoted in Tu-Uyen Tran’s article about a report from the Center for Public Integrity – a left-wing group with ties, in the past at least, to the Soros network of funding – giving North Dakota a D- for integrity. I did two lengthy interviews with Tran, who worked as a freelancer on behalf of CPI on the project, to produce the rankings.

“The low grade doesn’t suggest the presence of corruption, but indicates that the state’s institutions are ill-equipped to fight corruption should it emerge,” Tran cautions in his article, and I generally agree with that, though I’m disappointed he didn’t do more to point out the weaknesses in these sort of rankings.

What I don’t like about these sort of policy rankings, whether they come from the left or the right, is that they rank the states based on whether or not they have the policies the group doing the ranking supports. There is zero thought given to whether or not there are actually problems in the state, and whether or not the policies supported by the group doing the ranking would solve them.

Case in point the State of Illinois – which leads the nation, I believe, in the number of governors sent to jail – got a higher grade than North Dakota on this ranking (a D+).

You can read North Dakota’s rankings right here, and to see what I’m talking about take a look at the fact that North Dakota got an “F” when it comes to access to public records.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]…North Dakota got a zero grade for not having restrictions on legislators entering the private sector after their term in office. But North Dakota has a part-time legislature. There are no restrictions on the legislators entering the private sector after office because pretty much all of them have day jobs.[/mks_pullquote]

As someone who does a lot of work with open records – Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has appointed me to a task force to review and possibly improve open records/open meetings policies in the state – I think that grade is fantastically unfair. Our existing transparency laws are strong. I do think they can be improved, especially in that there could be some real consequence for habitual violators of open records/open meetings laws (read more of my thoughts here), but an “F” grade? That simply doesn’t reflect reality, which is that North Dakota has one of the broadest open records/open meetings laws in the country.

When I talk to people who work with open records in other states they marvel at how accessible public information is in North Dakota. Heck, they marvel at how accessible most public officials are. This is a state where the lawmakers publish their cell phone numbers with their official bios. Where else does that happen?

An area where North Dakota was dinged twice in the ranking was producing records in an open format. I guess that’s some new thing where spreadsheets or whatever are made available in a commonly accessible computer format. There is no law requiring that North Dakota state agencies do this, but in practice I pretty much always get the data I want in formats I can work with, and the few times I haven’t are pretty specialized cases. Giving the state a failing grade on this front seems entirely arbitrary.

CPI also gave the state an “F” for legislative accountability, but here to the criteria are sort of silly. For instance, North Dakota got a zero grade for not having restrictions on legislators entering the private sector after their term in office. But North Dakota has a part-time legislature. There are no restrictions on the legislators entering the private sector after office because pretty much all of them have day jobs. Unless we want to go to a full-time legislature – and I don’t sense that’s what the people of North Dakota want – we can’t restrict lawmakers from making a living.

The state also got an “F” for “Ethics Enforcement Agencies” which is basically the lack of an state ethics committee which Democrats have been campaigning for. But does anyone think an ethics committee would solve ethical problems? Does the byzantine maze of ethics and oversight committees in Washington DC accomplish much outside of partisan witch hunts and grandstanding hearings?

Again, these sort of rankings are worthless, because they just assume that the platform of policies the group doing the ranking supports would work in every single state. CPI isn’t taking into account that North Dakota lawmakers are part time. And as far as an ethics panel goes, there seems to be little thought put into whether that would make things in the state worse or better.

I do want improvements in our transparency laws. I want local governments to put their spending online. I want more disclosure from statewide and legislative campaigns. Right now they don’t report all of their spending, they don’t report any of their expenditures, and what reporting they actually do isn’t always very timely.

I’d worry less about the fact that it’s legal for politicians to spend their campaign dollars on themselves – something Democrats have turned into a major talking point – if the politicians had to actually report their expenditures. If a given candidate wants to use their campaign dollars to go on a shopping spree, then fine. Let them disclose that spending to the public, and the voters can decide whether or not it’s appropriate.

What I don’t want is to empower politically driven ethics investigations. I don’t want to restrict political spending or activities. What matters the most, I think, is transparency.

Disclose, I think, don’t restrict.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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