CHEYENNE — Wyoming is the third-worst state in the nation when it comes to laws preventing corruption or promoting openness and accountability, according to a newly released national study.
The wide-ranging State Integrity Investigation, conducted jointly by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, concludes Wyoming’s framework needs to be strengthened in a number of areas, from campaign finance to access to public records.
But many state policymakers were skeptical of the study’s relevance, pointing out that Wyoming’s “F” grade was only based on the number of laws and regulations it has in place. And with Wyoming’s small population, citizen Legislature, and low levels of corruption, they said, the state simply doesn’t need all the safeguards that larger, more crooked states might need.
Room for improvement
The study measured states’ laws and regulations, both in writing and in practice, in 14 categories, from public access to information to campaign finance law. Wyoming received an “F” in nine of those categories, including public access to information and executive and judicial accountability.
The study particularly took issue with Wyoming’s lax — or, in some cases, nonexistent — campaign finance laws, asset disclosure rules and lobbyist regulations.
The state has no campaign finance limits, doesn’t require campaigns to disclose donor or fundraising information until 10 days after an election, only collects limited information about public officials’ assets, and doesn’t require lobbyists to submit spending reports.
The study also took Wyoming to task for, among other things, having no state ethics enforcement agency, having no system established to report public sector corruption, and having inadequate transparency laws and safeguards regarding the state’s pension system.
Bill McCarthy, a former Wyoming Tribune Eagle political reporter who compiled the Wyoming study, said the goal of the study was to raise awareness about potential gaps in state law and start a debate over whether policymakers should address them.
That debate can’t start too soon, said Dan Neal, director of the Equality State Policy Center, a Laramie-based liberal think tank.
While there are comparatively few examples of corruption in Wyoming government now, Neal said, the goal should be to act preventatively, before it’s too late.
“Do we want to wait until we have an example here in the state where someone basically buys a legislator, gets something from the state, and then we end up finding out about it later and end up wringing our hands over ‘Gee, we never thought this would happen in Wyoming?’” Neal said.
There were a couple of bright spots in the study for Wyoming: It was one of three states to get an “A” for its state budget process, and it also got top marks for its transparent legislative redistricting process.
Apples to oranges?
Some state lawmakers questioned the value of the study, saying it criticizes Wyoming for not having laws that, while perhaps appropriate in other states, aren’t needed here.
“They’re comparing regulations to regulations, and not problems to problems,” said House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington. “The laws that are in existence now seem to have served us fairly well.”
Wyoming also has traditionally been distrustful of government regulations and intrusion into individuals’ lives. The part-time citizen Legislature, composed of individuals from a variety of professions, has been reluctant to pass disclosure laws that pry into personal privacy, according to the study.
And with the smallest population of any state, Wyoming officials are less removed from their constituents, making it easier to discover — and punish — any transgressions, the study found.
State Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said he hasn’t seen any reason to toughen Wyoming’s campaign finance laws or other regulations.
Burns said he was wary of the study as no state received an “A” grade.
“I’m also a little skeptical,” he added, “of anything that considers New Jersey to have the best character.”