Washington government agencies dropped slightly in rankings for openness and integrity while Idaho came up, but both got just barely passing grades in a new study by a national group.
The Center for Public Integrity graded Washington the 12th-best in the nation for openness, even though it received only a D+, and Idaho was at 26th with a D-.
The survey used 250 different tests for government integrity, and when the overall scores were tallied, all states but one scored below a C and 11 received Fs. Nicholas Kusnetz, the project manager, defended a system that resulted in poor overall grades for the vast majority of states.
Most were graded down for public access to information and ethics enforcement, he said in an emailed response to a question about the fairness of a system that has such low overall grades.
“The majority of states have serious deficiencies in those areas, such as open records laws riddled with exemptions and no entities tasked to oversee compliance with those open records laws,” he said.
Each question sought “best practice” for a particular agency or system, so some states got As in some categories, but “I don’t think it’s surprising that no state is getting As across all of the categories,” he said.
Gordon Witkin, the executive editor of the study, said there was “no desire to grade on the curve.” The center consulted 100 experts on state government and believes “the findings are important and illuminating.”
State officials hadn’t seen the report, which is scheduled for general release Monday morning. David Ammons, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said Washington usually gets high marks in other surveys for its public disclosure and records laws and transparency.
“But it’s something you never stop working on,” he added.
The report on Washington noted that state Auditor Troy Kelley, the top government official elected to head the agency designed to monitor other state and local agencies, is under indictment for alleged fraud and tax evasion and was forced to go on unpaid leave. But its highest score across the 13 categories was for internal auditing, where Washington ranked fourth among all states, with perfect scores on acting on audit findings and giving citizens access to those reports.
Although the state has a public records law, hundreds of exemptions have been added to it since voters approved it more than 40 years ago.
Washington’s lowest scores were in legislative accountability and public access to information. Government watchdogs quoted by investigators noted that while legislative budget committees hold budget hearings, the final budget is written behind closed doors in the final days of the legislative session and pushed through both chambers with little time for the public to study it.
Idaho got its highest grade, an A, for its budgeting process, which investigators for the center concluded was open to the public and transparent, with reports the public can understand and access. It received Fs across the board for accountability in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and ranked 49th out of the 50 states for “ethics enforcement.”
Washington received a B- and ranked third in the nation in a 2012 study by the center, while Idaho received a D- and ranked 41st in that study. But the categories used to determine the grades have changed so much that the scores aren’t comparable, the center said.
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