Sunday Column: On Tennessee’s ‘C’ in Integrity Grading

Tennessee got a grade of “C” last week in a “state integrity” national rating of state governments, an averaging of some areas wherein our fair state warrants an “A” and others wherein it warrants an “F.”
The review was conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. No state got an overall “A” (eight got an overall “F”) and Tennessee’s numerical score of 77 was actually eighth best in the nation.
(Note: National overview HERE; Tennessee scorecard HERE; Tennessee narrative story HERE.)

Since the topic involves transparency and openness, first a disclosure note: Yours truly was interviewed months ago, as the project was getting under way, by the lady who did the Tennessee research and reporting. She paid for lunch.
Mostly, I suggested other people she should interview and places to find state government information. The list of questions the project managers required to be answered by the researchers on the lay of the state government landscape was, at the least, comprehensive and perhaps exhaustive in the details required.
That said, the Tennessee rating seems about right. Our state government does do many things well.
The state Legislature’s website, for example, does deserve its high marks. One can quibble about its shortcomings, and here is one: Amendments to bills, which often completely rewrite the way a piece of legislation read when introduced, are often not posted until days after becoming available in Legislatorland. But there is a huge amount of information there that is readily accessible to anyone with a computer. And, eventually, even the amendments get there.
The state’s pension fund, its auditing process for governmental agencies and the competency of appellate court judges doubtless deserve their good marks.
Then there are the things that drag those “A”-quality efforts down in the averaging. The Tennessee integrity review says:
“Since its creation, (the Tennessee Ethics Commission) has been plagued by infighting, controversy and questions about how serious lawmakers really are about lasting reform. In six years, the panel has yet to find anyone guilty of violating an ethics law.”
That may be an understatement. The commission has even gone for months without a quorum because no one was appointed to serve on it after member terms expired. Somehow, leaders of our state government just forget about enforcement of that ethical stuff. It is not a priority.
Similarly, the report notes that the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, an ethics panel for judges, has come under fire for not going after judges who behave unethically. Institutionalized veils of secrecy shroud the dealings of the Court of the Judiciary and the Ethics Commission, where it is forbidden to even acknowledge that a complaint has been filed against an elected official, whether judge or legislator. And the Legislature has institutionalized secret wheeling and dealing in general, even though passing laws that require openness in local governments.
And there’s campaign finance. The integrity review puts Tennessee down on that front, noting the 2011 law that opens the door to direct corporate financing of campaigns for state office and thus enhancing the importance of money in state politics.
One suspects that, if the review were conducted later this year, Tennessee would be headed downward in the ratings.
The Court of the Judiciary does seem headed for some modest improvement in openness, thanks to the attention of angry legislators. And the good things like audits and websites are in stability mode. Likewise things such as nonenforcement of ethics laws. Further, on most every item mentioned as a negative, this year’s activity by our legislators and our governor seems advance the cause of governmental secrecy.
Gov. Bill Haslam wants to assure that corporations receiving taxpayer grants do not have to disclose their ownership. The Legislature’s majority seems bent on repealing a provision in state law that limits legislators from receiving only $214,400 from political action committees when they run for re-election. And on making sure there’s no public access to teacher evaluation scores. And so on.
Yes, we rank high for now among other states. But, by gosh, we could get down there with those failing states in due course with just a little more effort.

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