South Dakota GOP Rushes To Repeal Ethics Reforms Passed By Voters

Much like their national counterparts, they're not eager for oversight.

WASHINGTON ― Republican lawmakers in South Dakota are ready to declare a legislative emergency so that they quickly and completely wipe out an ethics and campaign finance reform law adopted by popular vote in November.

The measure, known as IM-22, passed with 52 percent of the vote. It is supposed to create an independent commission to oversee investigations into ethical misconduct by elected officials, impose tougher limits on campaign contributions and lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers, place restrictions on lawmakers becoming lobbyists, increase disclosure by independent political groups, and set up a system to publicly finance elections.

Republican lawmakers from Gov. Dennis Daugaard to state Senate Majority Leader Blake Curd came out against the initiative before the election. The opposition was heavily funded by the South Dakota chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the largest advocacy arm of the conservative political machine run by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

After its passage, Daugaard called the law a “mess” and claimed that voters were “hoodwinked” by out-of-state actors. He vowed to repeal it if it wasn’t struck down in the courts. Curd called the passage of the law “a constitutional crisis in our state” because, he said, it makes “de-facto criminals out of every elected office holder” and gives those officials “only two choices: resign the office and abandon the voters or remain and commit a crime.”

On Monday afternoon, a joint committee of the South Dakota legislature approved emergency rules to immediately repeal the entire law. The next step is a vote on the floor of the state House of Representatives on Tuesday.

State Sen. Billie Sutton (D) told HuffPost, “This is a way that the repeal can’t be referred to the ballot.”

Normally in South Dakota, if the legislature repeals a citizen-backed initiative, the voters can propose a referendum to reverse the repeal. But if it’s eliminated under emergency rules, the citizens can’t reverse that repeal. To adopt those emergency rules, the legislature needs a two-thirds majority, which Republicans provided.

Steve Hildebrand, an advocate for the ethics initiative, conceded that because of overwhelming Republican control of the state government, it “probably won’t be that big of a fight.” The GOP holds majorities of more than 80 percent in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate. They control every statewide elected position, too.

“Republicans simply want nobody policing their business when they dominate the legislature and the governor’s office,” Hildebrand said.

The action in South Dakota echoes initial attempts by the Republicans in the U.S. Congress to defang the Office of Congressional Ethics and target the Office of Government Ethics.

“A total repeal of a law passed by the voters is a completely unprecedented move in South Dakota’s political history,” said Doug Kronaizl, head of Represent South Dakota.

Take It Back, a South Dakota group, led the campaign to enact the reform initiative. Represent.Us, a national anti-corruption organization that operates chapters in numerous states including South Dakota, was the main funder of the Yes on 22 campaign.

The top objections to IM-22, Hildebrand said, are the publicly funded election campaigns and the independent ethics commission it would create.

The publicly funded campaign system would provide each citizen with two $50 vouchers to be used as contributions to participating candidates. To receive the vouchers, candidates would have to agree to lower contribution limits and spending caps. The program would be funded from the state’s general fund at a cost of $9 per registered voter.

Americans for Prosperity sharply attacked the voucher idea. One mailer said that it would allow politicians to pocket “our hard earned money.”

The independent ethics commission would investigate ethics and campaign finance complaints lodged against legislative and executive branch officials. It would be made up of five commissioners, with no party holding a majority of members. Currently, there is no such independent authority overseeing state officials.

South Dakota has recently been rocked by multiple scandals, including the corrupt administration of the state’s privatized EB-5 visa program and the embezzlement of funds by state employees from an education cooperative. That may be why some Republicans have proposed either keeping the independent ethics commission or creating a new commission with less power after repealing the citizen-backed law. Attorney General Marty Jackley, who has prosecuted numerous political scandals in the state, broke with his fellow Republicans and called for the legislature to maintain the ethics panel. Secretary of State Shantel Krebs has also called for a campaign finance commission, albeit one with less authority than the entity enacted by South Dakota voters.

At the moment, state Circuit Judge Mark Barnett has issued a preliminary injunction that prevents the law from being implemented. The judge called his ruling “just a stop on the bus route,” as the final decision will probably be made by the South Dakota Supreme Court.

State Republicans had gone to court to argue that the law was unconstitutional mere weeks after the Nov. 8 election. Barnett’s ruling found that some elements of the measure were unconstitutional, but others were not. While supporters want to salvage the latter parts as the case goes through the courts, the legislature now looks set to repeal the whole law.

Sutton, the Democratic lawmaker, said he couldn’t “understand the emergency” since the court had already stopped the law. Why would Republicans need to rush the bill through in just four days?

“They don’t want to hear from the voters through emails and personal conversations and forums over the weekend,” Sutton said.

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