“A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.” — James Madison
Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 (copied from the Sunlight Foundation website)
The Helena Independent Record reports that Montana once again received a grade of F in for its candidate financial disclosure system from a national nonpartisan group. The Center for Public Integrity has tracked financial disclosure for 10 years. This year, Montana ranked 38th in the survey receiving only 54 of a possible 100 points. Montana’s rank continues to drop, from 36th in 1999 to 37th in 2006 and 38th this year, not so much because Montana is becoming worse at campaign finance reporting, but because most other states are becoming better.
Our neighbors, North Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho, also flunked with South Dakota scoring best in the neighborhood, garnering a grade of D and ranking 30th nationally. Montana’s transparency ranking was the result of several failings such as no requirement for lawmakers to list their income amounts, details about the nature and value of investments, clients of a candidate’s business, and we don’t require financial disclosure for spouses of candidates.
The Campaign Disclosure Project of the Sunlight Foundation gave Montana a grade of D for 2008 although we continued to receive an F for accessability to information even though the website of the Commissioner of Political Practices has been greatly improved in recent years. In a 2002 study, the Center for Public Integrity found that 29.9% of Montana lawmakers sat on a legislative committee with authority over one of their own professional or business interests, 18.6% of lawmakers had financial ties to businesses or organizations that lobby state government and 9.3% of Montana lawmakers received income from a state agency other than the Legislature.
Montana has a long way to go. The state Commissioner of Political Practices, Dennis Unsworth, called the survey reasonable and it’s analysis accurate. Unsworth said there is little interest among lawmakers for sponsoring legislation to toughen disclosure reporting requirements. “Strengthening our law will be very tough in the Montana Legislature”, Unsworth said. Change can happen though. When Bobby Jindal became governor of Lousiana, the state ranked 44th in the survey. That poor score motivated Louisiana to push for ethics reform and in the latest survey, they ranked number one. We need to continue to push for greater transparency from our elected officials in both Montana and in Washington.