From pay-to-play politics to dismal campaign disclosure requirements, America's fifty state governments have been weighed, measured and found wanting when it comes to ethical lawmaking.
Not a single state earned an A grade for ethics in the State Integrity Investigation, an analysis of states' transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms released Monday by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
Eight states - Georgia, Michigan, Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Carolina, Virginia and Wyoming - got failing grades. Only five earned B's: New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska.
Despite extensive laws limiting campaign donations, lobbyist influence and revolving-door politics, Georgia ranked dead last in the integrity survey. Southern lawmakers in the Peach State are experts at dodging these ethics laws and taking full advantage of the plethora of loopholes, said the analysis, especially when it comes to accepting gifts from state vendors.
From 2007 to 2008 more than 650 Georgia officials "accepted sports tickets, speaking fees, fancy meals and other gratuities," according to the study. Yet it has been more than a decade since the state fined a vendor for failing to disclose such gifts.
It was much the same story in Michigan, where the report said abysmal election finance transparency or lobbyist spending disclosure requirements have let special interests shovel big money into state elections with little or no oversight or reporting requirements.
And in the rural plains of North Dakota, which has a statewide population of about 684,000, there is a belief that ethics are self-policed because of the neighborly nature of the state's politics. The state has no ethics commission, no limits on how much individuals can donate to campaigns and no disclosure requirements for how that campaign cash is spent.
In contrast, the survey said, New Jersey has implemented a take-no-prisoners, iron-fist approach to political integrity. After years of political wheeling and dealing left New Jersey with a dismal reputation for political corruption, recent reforms and strict anti-bribery laws have made it the No. 1 state for political ethics.
But the state still earned a B for failures in campaign finance disclosure requirements.
As Heather Taylor, a spokeswoman for the good-government group Citizens Campaign, told the State Integrity Investigation, "There's still a lot more work to be done."