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Four in ten Americans surveyed could not identify the current vice president of the United States, according to a 1998 survey. Two-thirds of those interviewed did not know the names of their representatives in Congress. If this is an indication of what citizens know about their federal government, what does this disturbing research imply about our knowledge of what goes on in our state legislatures?

Laws passed in state legislatures shape virtually every aspect of our lives our safety, our health, our environment, our children, our pocketbooks, our privacy and our rights as citizens. And with each passing year, we see more legislative activity in the states. During 1999, 25,000 new bills were signed into law in statehouses across the country.

That’s 38,000 reasons to keep tabs on what goes on at the state level. The Center’s 50 States Project was formed to do just that.

With the notion that you cannot know too much about the public actions of public servants, the Center released “Our Private Legislatures’ Public Service, Personal Gain,” an unprecedented investigation of the outside economic interests of state legislators nationwide. Center writers illustrated how lawmakers across the country have placed private business interests ahead of the public trust.

What did we find? That what is often deemed illegal in the halls of Congress is “business as usual” at the statehouse. Some examples:

  • An Alabama lawmaker sponsored legislation to provide $30 million in taxpayer-backed bonds for the University of Alabama-Birmingham, which also happened to be his employer.
  • Nine Connecticut lawmakers whose relatives worked for the states county sheriffs departments in 1999 impeded a constitutional amendment that would have abolished the sheriff system, which has been characterized as little more than “a jobs program for politicians.”
  • Delaware lawmakers with stock in power companies operating in the state weakened conflict-of-interest rules so they could pass electricity deregulation legislation.
  • A Florida lawmaker whose brother is a commercial real-estate developer proposed legislation that would have virtually eliminated state oversight of land-use decisions and severely limited the states ability to control new development.
  • One Montana lawmaker also a real-estate broker who could benefit from increased home sales sponsored a bill that freed real-estate brokers from informing home buyers if a convicted sex offender lived in their new neighborhood.
  • Two Nebraska lawmakers both owners of stores that sell lottery tickets pushed for legislation that would have increased their share of lottery ticket sales and reduced budget funding for gambling addiction services, as well as critical state programs for education and the environment.

Members of the Oregon legislature easily approved a 60 percent pay increase for their legislative assistants at least 15 of whom just happened to be husbands and wives of state lawmakers.

Every time a lawmaker puts private financial interests first at the statehouse, citizens lose out.

It is important to note that the purpose of this report was not to indict part-time citizen legislatures, where people bring professional experience to the statehouse. If the American people want part-time legislatures in the states, then that is their business. Yet these past two years, we couldnt help but notice that current state-level “controls” and disclosure requirements simply fail to ensure that state lawmakers wearing more than one hat do their job properly. Unfortunately, the less the public knows about their politicians, the less power they have to oversee the officials they elect.

As an investigative fact-finding group, we believe that information is the key to citizens power in this democracy. In that spirit, we are pleased to announce the beginning of 50StatesWatch, a series of articles dedicated to covering ethics, disclosure and policy in state legislatures nationwide.

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