Update and correction, November 21, 2015: This article has been updated and corrected.
Maybe, just maybe, Vermont is on the verge of being dragged into the modern world of government transparency and oversight.
Not because the Green Mountain State is corrupt. By almost all accounts, it is not.
Despite its abysmal score — a 60, or D-, 37th in the country — in the latest State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, Vermont’s state government may be among the cleanest in the land. No one alive can recall even a whiff of suspicion — much less an actual allegation — of high-level bribery. Former Vermont governors don’t get hedge fund gigs. Defeated legislators do not reappear in the Statehouse as well-heeled lobbyists in thousand-dollar suits.
So what might be inspiring a new attitude?
Well, probably not the study score, though that is likely to become part of the discussion. Truth to tell, Vermont did almost as badly the first time around in 2012, when it garnered a D+. The grades are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Back in 2012, the response of state officials in the tidy capital city of Montpelier (and, so far as can be determined, the general public) was that Vermont needed neither laws nor agencies to prevent corruption and encourage transparency. In this tiny state of 630,000 souls, personal relationships, a tradition of ramrod rectitude, and old-fashioned New England reticence (or maybe, as one lobbyist put it, “we don’t have that much to steal,”) were seen as good enough.
And perhaps they were. But recent events have started to shake those comfy assumptions. Two years ago, the state’s chief telecommunications regulator quit to join one of the companies her agency regulated, a rather un-Vermont thing to do. This past July, the head of the state’s EB5 Regional Center resigned to go to work for Mount Snow, the resort trying to raise more than $50 million through that federal program, which grants permanent U.S. residence to foreigners who make job-creating investments in American projects.
Then, in May, came the arrest, right at the Statehouse, of state Sen. Norman McAllister on charges of sexual assault. Technically, these allegations have nothing to do with government ethics; the Franklin County Republican, who has pleaded not guilty, is charged with abusing women who worked for him in the private sector. But the political impact was immediate and unmistakable, with both editorialists and elected officials — including Gov. Peter Shumlin — endorsing the creation of an ethics commission.
Beyond the law
On other fronts, the State Integrity Investigation seems to signal a curious sort of ambivalence in Vermont — a paucity of laws codifying transparency, but a general respect for how business was being done regardless, at least as far as anyone can tell. Indeed, the project suggests that officials and agencies may follow many good-government principles even when the law does not require it.
Take, for example, the state’s score on its pension system. The number is 61, a D-, but is that because Vermont’s public employee pension system is troubled?
Hardly. By an objective standard, the system is exemplary. Its investments are highly rated and secure. The investment process is transparent. Representatives of the public employee unions — actual workers — sit on the investment committee, protecting the interests of present and future retirees.
But there is no law requiring those committee members to disclose all their assets. So citizens can’t see where there might be conflicts. There is also no law preventing a committee member from leaving his or her job and making big bucks at a pension investment firm.
No committee member has done so. But if one did, it would not violate any law.
Or consider the rather poor grade (73, or a C-) given to the state’s auditing practices. The Office of the State Auditor is generally held in high regard. But the law gives it no explicit power to audit the legislative or judicial branches, or to get involved where criminal activity is suspected (the attorney general’s office investigates these cases).
A mixed bag
Democracy may also clash with reform in regard to legislative accountability. Vermont is one of only three states in which lawmakers need not disclose their outside income, and though no polls have been taken on the subject, there is every reason to believe that most Vermonters don’t much mind. Part of that New England reticence is not caring how much your neighbors earn. In Vermont, legislators really are neighbors (there is a lawmaker for every 2,000 or so voters), and folks here seem to like it that way.
Vermont did not score badly in all areas. Thanks to a tradition of transparency in both the executive and legislative branches in regard to money matters (that old New England parsimony), it got an A for its budget process. And when it comes to campaign finance, where both laws and administration have been tightened in the last few years, the state earned a B, the third highest grade in the country.
Elsewhere, though, Vermont’s scores ranged from a barely respectable C- to a deplorable F, including the lowest score of any state when it comes to ethics enforcement. No mystery there. Vermont has no ethics enforcement agency.
Central to all the low scores: a lack of asset disclosure requirements. Neither the governor nor the cabinet secretaries nor judges need make a full disclosure of assets or outside income. The Governor’s Executive Code of Ethics forbids officials from lobbying former colleagues for a year after leaving state employ. But it does not forbid them from going to work for the businesses they have been regulating. Nor does that code apply to the governor — and though it has the force of law, it is not statute. A future governor could simply abolish it, politically foolish (and therefore unlikely) though that would be.
Nor is there any law requiring state agencies to make information available to the public in “open data” format, which allows people to download and sort information. Some do, but it’s up to them.
An ethics commission of some kind may be created next year. Asset disclosure rules could take a little longer; that New England reticence business seems to be as much a part of the landscape here as covered bridges and Jersey cows.
But change seems to be coming, if slowly and reluctantly. Vermont probably still doesn’t have that much to steal. But stealing — as in outright bribery or kickbacks — has never been a problem here. What has changed is that in an increasingly centralized, government-subsidized economy come more opportunities to use government service as a stepping stone, creating the temptation to make decisions benefitting oneself more than the public.
That’s the problem with the modern world. It eventually arrives everywhere — even Vermont.
Update and correction, November 21, 2015, 9:00 a.m.: This article has been updated and corrected to reflect a correction in the data. Vermont is now ranked 37th overall, its auditing score is 73 and a reference to the incorrect data has been edited and clarified.