When the Chicago-based Better Government Association produced its first Integrity Index in 2002, which ranks the political culture of each state by such measures as the adequacy of Freedom of Information laws and provisions to protect whistleblowers, it wasn't exactly a surprise that Illinois finished 41st.
In fact, given the state's infamous history of political corruption, it was kind of shocking that nine states had a more dismal integrity infrastructure in place than we did. Thank you Louisiana and Alabama!
Well, the BGA released its 2008 version of the index this week, and it's a stunner. New Jersey and Louisiana are commonly cited along with Illinois as the most corrupt states in America, but by the BGA's measure of performance in five key areas, New Jersey has vaulted into the top spot and Louisiana is fifth, due to reforms each state has put in place in the last six years. Illinois tied Arizona and West Virginia for 11th place.
"These laws are representative of a state's responsiveness to its citizens, and its commitment to maintaining ethics in government," BGA Executive Director Jay Stewart said in a press release. "Just as the fifty states compete to see which one is the most business-friendly, they should compete over their respective commitment to government integrity."
Of course, laws don't equate with conduct. And states ranking high in the study shouldn't break their arms patting themselves on their backs either, Stewart warned.
"The top-ranked state, New Jersey, earned a combined score of just 65 percent," Stewart noted. "When the top state fails to break 70 percent, clearly all fifty have a long way to go in promoting transparency and improving ethics."
Illinois' relative strong suit is whistleblower protection, the BGA found, just as it was in 2002. Unsurprisingly, Illinois' weak suit is campaign finance, though in 2002 it was Gifts, Trips and Honoraria - a category that was dropped this time around because so many state laws in this area are riddled with loopholes.
Some states have pounced on their Integrity Index ratings for PR purposes.
"BGA’s announcement today is another terrific signal that our special session to overhaul ethics laws in our state has indeed sent a clear message to the country that ‘who you know’ is no longer more important than ‘what you know’ when it comes to doing business in Louisiana," Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement.
Others tried to put a happy face on news that wasn't necessarily good.
MinnPost.com headlined its post "True to reputation, Minnesota ranks 'above average'," but Minnesota's 15th-place finish was relatively low considering the state's sterling reputation.
"Minnesota should be congratulated that it beat out 35 other states," Stewart told the site. "However, there is clearly a lot of room for improvement. If you look at the percentage score, Minnesota received 57%, the equivalent of an 'F' letter grade, hardly a cause for celebration."