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Take the Missouri lawmaker who introduced a bill this year — which passed despite a veto by the governor — to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores.The state representative cited concern for shoppers, but he also happens to be state director of the Missouri Grocers Association and is one of several lawmakers in the state who pushed bills that synced with their private interests.Such loopholes are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.The comprehensive probe found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions, and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists while feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.The result was a modest law the following year that created a cap on the value of lobbyists’ gifts to public officials.The change helped boost the state’s score in the category of legislative accountability to a C-, sixth-best in the nation.

That hasn’t stopped influence peddlers from continuing to provide meals to lawmakers at the luxurious Capital Hotel or in top Little Rock eateries such as the Brave New Restaurant; the prohibition does not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited,” so lobbyists can buy meals as long as they invite an entire legislative committee.Altogether, the project presents a comprehensive look at transparency, accountability and ethics in state government. DOWNWARD TREND, BLIPS OF DAYLIGHTOverall, states scored notably worse in this second round.Some of that decline is because of changes to the project, such as the addition of questions asking about “open data” policies, which call on governments to publish information online in formats that are easy to download and analyze.A 2013 report by a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”These are among the practices illuminated by the State Integrity Investigation, which measured hundreds of variables to compile transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states.The best grade in the nation, which went to Alaska, is just a C.

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