When the Center for Public Integrity announced that New Jersey is, by its standards, a cleaner state than Virginia, there were some good reasons to dispute the finding. But the Times-Dispatch isn’t the only one to think so!
These sorts of findings admit of only two explanations: Either New Jersey has gotten a bum rap in the past or something is very wrong with the State Integrity Investigation.
For starters, the study never actually defines what it means by corruption. Instead, the risk of corruption is defined by the presence or absence of certain laws—such as strict campaign-finance limits and lobbying disclosure—that good-government groups promote. But without a working definition of corruption, it is impossible to determine whether these sorts of reforms are the appropriate remedy.
Is regulation of state insurance commissions, for example, as important as lobbying disclosure as a means to combat corruption? Who knows? The study gives equal weight to both. Yet that’s like assuming aspirin is as good as a herbal supplement because some people think both can cure headaches.
All of which leads to the biggest problem with the State Integrity Investigation—the dearth of evidence demonstrating that many of the promoted reforms, such as public input into legislative redistricting and registration of lobbyists, actually prevent corruption.
Despite years of effort by proponents of strict campaign-finance laws, there’s no strong evidence that such laws affect either actual corruption or the public perception of corruption. Despite this absence of evidence, Virginia is penalized in the State Integrity Investigation because it has no campaign-finance limits (nor, it should be noted, any meaningful history of corruption).
The conclusions of the State Integrity Investigation are in conflict with other studies that have attempted to measure how well the states are governed. For example, the Pew study mentioned earlier, “Grading the States 2008,” concluded that Utah, Virginia and Washington were the best-governed states in the country. The State Integrity Investigation gives them grades of D, F and B- respectively.
The Pew study may have methodological issues of its own, but if we are given two grades for a state—one that emphasizes actual governance (such as whether states use cost-benefit analysis for regulations, or engage in responsible spending practices) and another that measures whether states have laws that somebody thinks might do something about corruption—we’ll go with the governance measure….