November 11, 2015
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
When it comes to public integrity, New Hampshire is lackluster among states. According to the state rankings of the Center for Public Integrity, “New Hampshire is firmly in the lower tier,” ranked in a tie for 34th with the nominal grade of D-minus. The Center’s State Integrity Investigation found that, as in so many other areas, we aren’t who we think we are.
We think of ourselves as a small state with minimal corruption. The legend has it that our government is small and close to the people, corruption is almost unheard of because so many people involved in the public sector are friends and neighbors, and that the safeguards necessary in more cynical states are superfluous here because everything and everyone is so accessible.
Like many government myths, this one doesn’t stand up to measurement. That helps, perhaps, explain why we avoid measuring things too often.
The State Integrity Investigation didn’t rely on an activist to write a subjective rant. Rather, they developed a comprehensive set of objective measurements — 245 different questions to be scored — and hired experienced journalists in each state to conduct interviews and answer the questions. The results were then peer reviewed by another experienced journalist.
In New Hampshire, the investigation used veteran reporter Ted Siefer, formerly with the New Hampshire Union Leader and lately working with Reuters and other news outlets. Siefer spent more than two years talking to analysts and workers inside and outside government — including me among dozens of others.
The results suggest opacity rather than transparency and won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has spent any time trying to figure out what’s going on inside our government.
New Hampshire has a long tradition of those in charge thinking too much information is a bad thing and not wanting to look too closely at the details. We do generally pay lip service to the idea of public records and have a moderately strong right-to-know law. The flaw, as Siefer points out, is that there is no mechanism to appeal refusals to comply other than the high hurdle of initiating action in state court.
By tradition, New Hampshire’s political class sees no need to police themselves. The most famous incident in New Hampshire’s political history was 30 years ago when infamous House Majority Leader Vinnie Palumbo torpedoed proposed state ethics laws by insisting “gentlemen keep their own scorecards.”
The police later helped with his scorecard on corruption, and he spent a few years as a guest of the state.
The attitude, however, persists. Our campaign finance laws are routinely snickered at around the country as ridiculously archaic with the substance of Swiss cheese. Candidates for high office can avoid any reports until just a few months before the election. Exactly what has to be reported, how described, and permissible uses are the subject of much speculation and multiple interpretations.
The lack of access to information has been on display for the last year-and-a-half in fights between the legislature and executive branch over access to timely budget information. As brilliantly transparent as our tax information is, the spending side is the opposite. Charges back and forth cannot be adjudicated because not only are updates on spending compared to budget not available to the public, those secrets are closely guarded in the Legislature — for example legislative budget writers might normally be expected to have access to agency budget updates.
The new budget transparency law pushed by Sen. Jeb Bradley last session should help but only if appropriately implemented.
A dozen years ago, then-Gov. Craig Benson pushed for but did not receive a significant increase in the funds allocated to the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Audit Division. This little known corner of state government is a staff of 24 that conducts financial and performance audits of state agencies and programs.
Their recommendations often save the state millions of dollars — for example when they recommended competitive bidding of the myriad insurance policies the state buys on itself. They are the group currently charged with figuring out how exactly the state accidentally didn’t spend $20 million appropriated to eliminate the developmental disability waiting list.
Here’s an idea: The current governor might look into Gov. Benson’s old files and dust off his plan on audits. While you’re waiting for that unlikely event to occur, you would do well to read Ted Siefer’s report on state integrity. Be forewarned: It’s a little depressing.