Virginia Government Scores an “F” for Transparency, Accountability

Virginia transparency and accountability report card. (Click for more legible image.)

by James A. Bacon

Virginia scores 47th out of 50 states in a ranking of transparency and accountability conducted by the State Integrity Investigation project. In case you were wondering, a score of 50 is the absolute worst. In other words, 46 other states have greater transparency and accountability than we do.

Among the major flaws in Virginia: The state is one of only nine with no ethics commission, one of four with no campaign finance limits, and one of only two in which part-time legislators select the judges before whom many practice law. The State Corporation Commission and constitutional officers (including sheriffs) are exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act. Lobbyists are required to register, but the definition of “lobbying” applies only to direct contact with legislators and the governor, not to the influence over the drafting of regulations or contacts with other lobbyists. And that’s just the short list. (See the Virginia state profile.)

By contrast, Virginia receives superior scores only for procurement and internal auditing. (Let’s have a cheer for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission!)

The project stems from a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Predictably, defenders of the status quo will shoot the messenger — this is a liberal organization, therefore, it’s biased. As a libertarian/conservative, I tend to be highly suspicious of liberals. I never take anything they say at face value. But I don’t start with the supposition that they are always wrong. Sometimes, they make valid points and do valuable work. And this is one of those cases. There is no evident partisan slant to the state rankings. This is a study that everyone should take seriously.

Defenders of the status quo make one other point: How bad can the problem be? Virginia has a low level of corruption. As House Speaker William Howell said after the conviction of former Del. Phil Hamilton, R-Newport News, for bribery and corruption, “Neither ethical lapses nor public corruption are commonplace, let alone tolerated in Virginia.” Howell added that the state has a longstanding “reputation for good government.”

I have the highest regard for Howell’s personal integrity, but in this instance I believe he is being naive. As Laura Lafay, the Virginia researcher for this project, quotes John McGlennon, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, as saying, “How they can take the case of the one guy who got caught and say it proves that no one does anything wrong is beyond me. Part of the reason we identify those states like Illinois and New Jersey as more corrupt is because they have more rules identifying corrupt behavior.”

A case in point: A month ago, I blogged about special state tax breaks worth millions of dollars carved out for the Orion Air Group. There was nothing illegal about the legislation and lobbying surrounding that deal — but there should have been. Virginians can preen themselves about how clean their government is. Just because a practice is legal, however, doesn’t make it right.

Another worrisome area is transparency and accountability for a wave of multibillion-dollar public-private transportation projects in the process of being negotiated around the commonwealth. Virginia’s executive branch has the power to dispense massive sums of money with minimal outside oversight and, due to the inherent tension between transparency and privacy during the negotiation process, with public involvement limited to the early phases of a project. As for handing off the Rail-to-Dulles project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is exempt from Virginia FOIA laws and auditing oversight, don’t get me started!

This is not a McDonnell administration issue, and it would be a mistake to turn it into one. This is not an Elephant Clan/Donkey Clan issue. This is a matter of the rules of governance we set to constrain the behavior of whomever is in office. Bloggers of all philosophical stripes should pick up this banner and fight for more open government.

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  1. here’s another one for LOCAL accountability. Look at YOUR county.

    Evaluation of Virginia county websites

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Virginia is, by far, the worst state government in the nation. How many analyses does one need to read in order to understand this?

    The least competitive state legislature elections (50th out of 50).
    The third worst in transparency and accountability (47th out of 50)
    The only immediately lame duck governor.
    The most onerous ballot process in the nation, by far.

    C’Mon boys and girls – smell the roses.

    Virginia is a great state. It just has a heinous government.

  3. DJ might be right but neither the GOP or the DEMs are up to fixing it

  4. Virginia has always been premised on the assumption that some people were better than others: whites over blacks, large landowners over small farmers, English settlers over other Europeans, Protestants over Catholics and Jews. Government and access to information about what that government is doing has been designed to ensure this split is maintained to the extent practicable. But does anyone care?

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