Getting State Anticorruption Commissions to Work

In the elections last November 6, citizens in New Mexico and North Dakota voted to amend their state constitutions to establish state anticorruption commissions. In doing so, they joined the vast majority of American states (currently 44 out of 50) that have created similar (or at least similarly-named) commissions—starting with Hawaii back in 1968. The impulse to create a special commission to deal with a significant problem like public corruption is certainly understandable. Indeed, many state commissions were created immediately after a major public corruption scandal, when public frustration was running high. At the same time, though, the record of such state-level anticorruption commissions in the US is mixed at best (see, for example, here, here, and here). And despite the similarities in their names, many of these commissions actually do quite different things—with some functioning like ethics commissions that publish quasi-legislative standards and others functioning more like mini-prosecutors’ offices. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that voters in New Mexico or North Dakota knew exactly what they were voting for when they went to the ballot boxes. In New Mexico, the referendum measure left to it to the state legislature to determine how the commission would operate, while the language in the North Dakota referendum suggested that the commission’s duties would be largely optional.

Despite their diversity and admittedly mixed track record, state anticorruption commissions have many potential benefits. They can provide clear reporting channels for individuals who have witnessed corruption; they can evaluate systemic corruption risks by sector and recommend more targeted reforms to state legislators; and they can enhance accountability by investigating ethics complaints and corruption allegations, and referring appropriate cases to state prosecutors’ offices. But in order to be effective, state commissions need to have certain institutional features and safeguards.

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