These Are The Ethics Reforms That South Dakota Republicans Are Hustling To Repeal

Lawmakers want to keep unlimited lobbyist gifts, dark money and no independent ethics oversight.

WASHINGTON ― Republicans in South Dakota are fast on their way to repealing an ethics and campaign finance reform law passed by the voters in November. The state House of Representatives has already voted yes on the emergency repeal bill, with only four Republican defections, and the state Senate was expected to do the same Thursday.

What exactly are Republicans rushing to wipe off the books?

The South Dakota Anti-Corruption Act, or Initiated Measure 22, is a combination of ethics, lobbying and campaign finance reforms. It passed on Nov. 8 with 52 percent of the vote ― from the same South Dakota electorate that gave President Donald Trump 62 percent support.

The law was backed by a bipartisan group of local allies, including the Take It Back effort led by 2014 Democratic Senate candidate Rick Weiland. The national anti-corruption organization Represent.Us was the main funder of the Yes on 22 campaign.

Represent.Us brought its resources to South Dakota because it wanted to prove that anti-corruption reforms could win in a predominantly Republican state. South Dakota was the first state in the nation to allow voter-initiated referendums, back in 1898. It was also one of the few without any basic legal ethics infrastructure, including no independent ethics watchdog and no ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. Two years ago, the state ranked 47th in the Center for Public Integrity’s annual state accountability ratings, which said that South Dakota “lacks robust laws to prevent corruption.”

The about-to-be-repealed law was set to close a lot of those ethical holes. It would have:

  • Limited legislative and executive branch officials to no more than $100 in lobbyist gifts per year. These gifts would also have to be disclosed. South Dakota is currently the only state where lobbyists are allowed to give unlimited, undisclosed gifts to elected politicians and other government officials.

  • Increased transparency requirements for campaign contributions and spending by all those outside groups empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. All contributions of $500 or more would have to be reported within five days of their receipt. The government would have to make all campaign finance and lobbyist disclosures available online in an searchable electronic format.

  • Established an independent watchdog to oversee investigations into potential ethics and campaign finance violations committed by legislative and executive branch officials. Five individuals would sit on the watchdog commission, with no political party holding more than two seats.

  • Lowered campaign contribution limits for all electoral races, including a cap of $750 on combined contributions from an political action committee to an individual candidate. The other new limits would vary by political office sought. Despite what some Republican lawmakers have said, the law would place no limit on self-funding by candidates.

  • Banned certain high-level legislative and executive branch officials and staffers from taking jobs as lobbyists for two years after leaving office.

  • Created a voluntary system of publicly financed election campaigns with $4.7 million to $12 million in government funds. Citizens would receive two $50 credits to use as donations to participating candidates. Those candidates who chose to participate would have to agree to lower contribution and spending limits.

  • Increased the penalty for bribery by defining it as a felony.

South Dakota Republicans are set to repeal the law ― which can be read here in its entirety ― without passing any replacement.

A state judge has already enjoined the law from taking effect until the South Dakota Supreme Court can rule on the constitutionality of certain provisions. Judge Mark Barnett wondered in particular whether it was constitutional to establish an ethics commission outside any specific branch of government or to allow citizen-backed initiatives to appropriate money, in this case for the public funding of campaigns.

Barnett did not suggest that other provisions, including the limits on lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions and the increases in disclosure requirements and legal penalties, were unconstitutional. Republican lawmakers are preparing to repeal them anyway.

Update: Later on Thursday, the South Dakota Senate delayed its final vote to repeal the Anti-Corruption Act under emergency rules until next week.

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