S.D. Congress Guts Voter-Backed Ethics Law

PIERRE, S.D. (CN) – South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed into law Thursday a bill that would gut a voter-initiated ethics law that would have capped lobbyist contributions to lawmakers, tightened reporting requirements and set up publicly funded elections.

“When you have one party in power for over 40 years, this is what happens – there becomes a sense of entitlement where you think that you don’t have to respect the will of the voters,” Senator Billie Sutton, a Democrat from Burke, South Dakota, said in an interview. “Voters have to say, enough’s enough, we need a change, we need a strong two-party system.”

Sutton was one of eight senators who voted against repeal bill HB 1069 on Wednesday. The objectors included all six Democratic senators and two Republican senators. The remaining 27 senators, all Republicans, favored repeal.

Voters passed the disputed law, known as Initiated Measure 22 or the South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act, by less than a 52 percent majority on Election Day.

The 34-page Act limited lobbyist campaign gifts to $100, narrowed the definition of “campaign expenditure,” and allowed for publicly funded elections by setting up a “democracy credit” program through which registered voters would receive two $50 “credits” that they could then donate to the political candidate of their choice.

Within weeks of its passage, two dozen state lawmakers sued the state, declaring the new law unconstitutional.

Because South Dakota utilizes a part-time, citizen congress, many representatives hold outside jobs with companies that also employ lobbyists. Under the new law, the representatives argued that compensation for their employment could be interpreted as “gifts” from lobbyists or those who employ lobbyists.

In addition, they claimed the restrictions on lobbyist gifts and stringent reporting requirements chilled free speech and that the lack of sufficient funding for the “democracy credits” program rendered voters unequal, since only those who cashed in before the funds ran out would have access to them.

Even though a state judge put the brakes on implementation of the law in early December 2016, lawmakers declared a “state of emergency” shortly after their 2017 session opened in January to push the repeal through in an expedited fashion and to foreclose the possibility of returning the law to the ballot in the future.

“It’s a slap in the face to the voters of South Dakota to say not only do we think you don’t know what you’re talking about, but now we’re not going to give you an opportunity to vote again to tell us what you think,” Sutton said.

Lawmakers have vowed to introduce various bills to address voters’ concerns about ethics in government, but proponents of the original measure remain skeptical.

In a letter to Sioux Falls newspaper The Argus Leader, 23-year-old Doug Kronaizl asks, “Who do you trust to write ethics rules for our government — the politicians who have to follow them, or the people who want to hold politicians accountable?”

Sutton also fears the legislature’s backlash against the initiative underlies the corruption the Act was meant to address.

“What does constitute a conflict of interest?” he asked. “If you file a lawsuit as a plaintiff and then you vote to repeal the legislation that is in the court system, that actually saves you from having to spend money as the plaintiff, which is a conflict of interest. I’m not saying that [Republican legislators] are bad people, a lot are friends of mine, but they shouldn’t be voting on an issue that so directly impacts them.

“It’s a perfect example of why the people of South Dakota wanted this issue addressed with IM-22 – they want transparency and they want honesty in their government,” he added.

Opponents of the measure say it was pushed on South Dakotans by out-of-state interests whose main objective was to enact publicly funded elections, and that many who voted for it did not fully understand its implications.

However, out-of-state forces, including billionaire Charles Koch, also put considerable effort into blocking the measure.

The Republican governor’s swift stamp of approval on the bill comes as no real surprise, as Daugaard had already expressed support for the repeal, citing his unwillingness to allocate funds from an already-tight budget for the “democracy credit” program.

“With only $19.7 million in new revenue, this would cannibalize nearly 25 percent of it,” the governor said in his annual budget address.

He also backed his decision with the claim that the court had found the bill to be “unconstitutional.”

“The circuit court enjoined Initiated Measure 22, finding it unconstitutional ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ It has not been in effect, and it is extremely unlikely that it would ever come into effect,” Governor Daugaard said in a statement. “For that reason, it makes sense to repeal this unconstitutional measure. Over the next few weeks, I will work with legislators to honor the will of the voters – by passing bills to regulate gifts from lobbyists and to strengthen ethics and campaign finance laws.”

Senate president and bill sponsor Brock Greenfield (R-Clark) did not respond to an emailed request for comment Thursday.

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