Oregon's state government has earned it a ranking of 14th in the nation for transparency and accountability, according to a new investigative report. According to this study, that score puts the state at relatively low risk for corruption by most indicators. The Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International are collaborating with OPB and other stations around the country in an assessment of the 50 states' integrity policies. The project reviews and rates everything from state finances to accessibility and oversight policies. April Baer reports on what the study found in Oregon.
The State Integrity Investigation covers a wide range of government functions: does everyone have access to the budget process? Do state leaders have to disclose conflicts of interest? What rights citizens have to public information?
Larry and Donna Steinmetz have a story that reflects what's both good and bad about Oregon's score. The Steinmetzes participated in a state program that lets seniors defer paying their state property taxes. The state basically covers the tax payment. When the enrollee dies, the state gets its money back with interest, when the house is sold.
Steinmetz says, "It worked well for us, we were able to work on the home redo the roof, put in a new oil tank."
They came home to Portland from last year's vacation, to find a letter in the mailbox. It said Oregon's program had ended, and they shouldn't bother to re-apply. They were going to owe back taxes equalling $350 a month.
Donna Steinmetz laughs, "I said, 'We're dead' ... cause, on a fixed income, $350 dollars is hard to come by."
They had no background in advocacy, but before they knew it, the Steinmetzes were calling the Department of Revenue and trying to talk their way in front of state legislators on the House and Senate Revenue Committees.
The Steinmetzes quickly learned the Legislature had taken money from the fund a few years ago. The 2011 budget crunch, the decision was made to end the program. But by the time a January meeting of the House Revenue Committee rolled around, the enrollees had knocked on enough doors to get real attention.
Larry Steinmetz explained, "The thing that made the change happen was the number of people who were hurting, they were crying, 'What am I going to do?'"
The activists packed the January hearing to tell their stories, and some got a short-term deferment for their back taxes. In that sense, The Steinmetzes consider their lobbying effort a success. The State Integrity Investigation scores Oregon relatively high for having an accessible budget process. But, the Steinmetzes say they had trouble getting the kind of public records they wanted to find out who else might have been affected by changes to the program. A spokesman for the Department of Revenue says the department would not release certain information about enrollees because it is considered private.
And while advocates could get information about the program's standing in the budget, but not soon enough to stave off their tax bills. And if they'd been up against a well-funded lobbyist, they would have faced an entirely different set of challenges.
Dealing with the state can be frustrating, says State Rep. Vicki Berger, the Salem Representative who became an ally of the senior advocates.
Berger said, "That's the challenge of leadership, don't you think? Our responsibility is: let people know how we came to these decisions, and how they can influence these decisions and be responsible for them."
Berger served in ethics reform meetings in 2007 that dealt with how legislators raise and spend money. She has reviewed the State Intergrity Investigation data, and agrees Oregon has been relatively successful at making budget processes and campaign finance data available. But she shares a concern mirrored in the data: that the state's unrestricted campaign finance system is a glaring blot on the record, especially in certain legislative contests.
According to Berger, "For the races that are targetted and really matter, you're going up into million-dollar range, for a job that pays $25,000 a year - a million on both sides. In the Senate races it could get even bigger."
Court challenges to spending limits have kept changes in check. Attorney Dan Meek has been involved in several reform campaigns.
Meek said, "In many studies of corruption, Oregon ranks very high, because there are very few public officials in Oregon ever convicted of a corruption-type offense. Of course, in other states, there are many other corruption-type offenses to be convicted of."
For example, Meek says, the money laundering charges that brought down U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay would have been legal, had they been conducted in Oregon, under this state's elections law. Delay was convicted of funneling corporate money to Texas candidates.
Overall, Oregon gets good marks in the Integrity Investigation for its efforts to shed light on the redistricting process, and for the way government contracting is conducted.
Matthew Orchant with Oregon State Public Interest Research Group recently wrapped up a separate report on the openness of contracting and other data on the state website.
Orchant said, "Oregon is doing a lot right. We've been doing this report for 3 years. Two years ago Oregon got a D. last year, it got a B-. The most important measure is checkbook-level accountability: does the site have detailed expenditure information, individual payments made to vendors.”
Orchant says Oregon could improve by auditing the outcome of tax subsidies and other benefit programs.
The legislative session is barely over, but citizen Lobbyist Larry Steinmetz is already getting wound up to make his case in Salem next session. He says it's not easy interacting with state government. Especially if you're acting alone.
Larry Steinmetz said, "The sad part about it is people don't recognize they have a certain amount of authority that they can say, 'What about this and this, and this?'"
He's joined forces with other seniors to lobby for help with the tax deferment program. They met, not through a formal lobbying group or an email list, but literally bumping into each other in the halls of the state Capitol.
SEE OREGON'S GRADES: The State Integrity Investigation graded each state on more than 300 indicators of accountability, transparency, and corruption risk. The indicators are divided into 14 categories, which appear on the report card. Click on each category to see its individual indicators. Or follow the link on the report card to read an overview of what your state is doing well – and not so well – when it comes to government integrity.