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Published — November 17, 2005 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

State utility commissions fail transparency test

Half of states fail Center survey

Introduction

More than half of the states received a failing grade on making personal financial information of the nation’s utility board members available for public inspection, according to a Center for Public Integrity study examining laws in all 50 states.

These governing boards, commonly known as “public service commissions,” regulate rates and services provided by telephone companies, power companies and other utilities. These public servants generally have a low profile, but make decisions that can affect billions of dollars in revenue for investor-owned utilities nationwide.

Such clout makes disclosure of personal financial interests a high priority for open-government advocates and makes the dismal showing of many all the more distressing. Twenty-six states flunked the Center’s financial disclosure test, receiving a score lower than 60. Only Washington state earned an “A.”

Despite the low scores, most states do require at least some level of disclosure. Nine states, however, stood apart for their level of secrecy, earning one or zero points.

Every state has a regulatory body that oversees public utilities, although size, make-up and responsibilities vary.

The good

Washington state, a perennial open-government standout in Center surveys, came out on top again. The state’s financial disclosure requirements for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission earned 92.5 out of a possible 100 points. In September 2004, the Center also ranked the state No. 1 for its disclosure requirements regarding state legislators.

Three states — Texas, New Jersey and Arizona — earned a ranking of “B.” In all, 24 states scored 60 points or higher.

Generally, the greater the amount of information required of commissioners regarding their non-government income, the higher the score received on the 43-question survey. States are awarded points for requiring commissioners to name their outside employers, how much they earn, what directorships they hold, what investments they control and what business clients they may have. Points are also awarded for requiring disclosure of similar information about commissioners’ spouses.

Public access to those documents is another measuring stick. Nine states provide citizens access to commissioners’ filings on the Internet, while 39 states provide a sample filing online to show what information must be reported.

All 50 states have legislation that either limits or bans commissioners from earning income from regulated companies, but financial disclosure is an ethical safeguard for the public interest. An official who votes in favor of an issue that benefits a client can only be held accountable if their relationship already has been disclosed.

Disclosure rules for public utility boards tracked closely with rules for filing for state legislators. In 29 states, the requirements and disclosure forms were the same.

The bad

Nine states — most of them rural or sparsely populated — ranked at the bottom of the survey. Delaware, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming all received a zero on their report cards. Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan and Vermont each earned a single point:

  • Hawaii got one point because the state does require disclosure, but those records are “confidential and are not available to the public,” according to a letter received by the Center from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.
  • In Idaho, commissioners must declare as part of their oath of office that they have no financial interest in any regulated public utility and are required to sign a statement to that effect.
  • In Louisiana, only financial interests derived from state or local government contracts or contractors are required to be disclosed, according to the law. A letter from the state ethics board stated there were no economic statements on file.
  • In Vermont, there are no statutory requirements for disclosure, but upon taking office, commissioners file a form declaring the absence (or existence) of any conflicts. None were listed in the forms collected by the Center.
  • In Delaware, there are no statutory requirements for disclosure, but nominees for the post generally submit forms before confirmation by the state Senate.
  • Michigan was awarded a single point for requiring members of its Public Service Commission to submit a form that lists or declares the absence of any conflicts of interest. The Center collected forms dating back to 2001 – no conflicts were reported.

The national average pay for commissioners is $92,561, the Center survey found. Among the states with rock-bottom disclosure scores, Michigan’s commissioners earn the most at $108,202 per year; only nine other states pay commissioners more. Other states with poor disclosure and their salaries: Idaho ($82,740), New Mexico ($90,000), Utah ($91,000) and Wyoming ($87,516).

Michigan, which tied for second-to-last place in the Center’s rankings, was the most populous state to have such a low score. Other populous states with low scores and high salaries include:

  • Tennessee (39 points), where commissioners earn $95,148;
  • Minnesota (52.5 points), where commissioners earn $88,448;
  • Florida (51.5 points), where commissioners earn $124,348;
  • Illinois (55 points), where commissioners earn $99,000;
  • Pennsylvania (56 points), where commissioners earn $118,234;
  • Virginia (59 points), where commissioners earn $135,297.

Virginia commissioner pay is the highest in the nation, followed by Florida and Connecticut ($107,617 – $138,043).

The ugly

A handful of states have relatively good disclosure rules, but make it difficult for the public to access the information.

In Massachusetts and Wisconsin, commissioners are notified of the identity of any person examining their filing. Maryland will forward information about the person seeking the information to a filer upon request. Probably the most frustrating case for researchers is New York, where visitors are required to go to the capital and copy disclosure information by hand because photocopying is not allowed.

The laws in some states that require disclosure don’t empower oversight agencies to check on the completeness or accuracy of the information provided.

Four states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon — do not give oversight agencies the power to audit the disclosure filings for accuracy. Nine states do not perform a formal, or even an informal, routine review of the filings; that group includes Washington, the survey’s highest-scoring state.

However, seven states do publish a list of delinquent filers in order to encourage commissioners and other officials to file disclosure forms on time.

Learn where your state ranks and obtain detailed information on disclosure requirements. The Center also has excerpts from state law that outline conflict-of-interest rules.

Researchers David Baumgarten, Mike Baxter, David Jimenez, Katie Mills, Davinia Seay, and Katie Skirtich contributed to this report.

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