South Dakota Senate Repeals Voter-Backed Anti-Corruption Law

The vote occurred as protesters shouted "Shame!" and "Respect our votes!"

WASHINGTON ― Amid protesters’ shouts of “Shame!” and “Respect our votes!” the South Dakota Senate voted Wednesday night to repeal an anti-corruption law that voters passed as an initiative on Nov. 8, 2016.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) plans to sign the repeal bill as part of an emergency push by state Republicans to prevent the voter-approved ethics and campaign finance reform from going into effect.

The Republican-led state Senate voted to repeal the law by a 27-8 margin. Only two Republicans, state Sens. Lance Russell and Stace Nelson, voted with the chamber’s six Democrats to keep the law in place. The state House of Representatives previously voted to repeal the law by a 54-13 margin.

South Dakota voters approved the initiative last year with 52 percent support. This was the same electorate that gave Donald Trump 62 percent of the vote.

“We shined an actual spotlight on a corrupt institution in need of reform,” stated Doug Kronaizl, president of the South Dakota chapter of national anti-corruption group Represent.Us that championed the law.

“We voted, we testified, we showed up at townhalls, we called and wrote letters, we’ve tried all the traditional routes to show our support for the Anti-Corruption Act and have our voices heard, but lawmakers did not listen,” Kronaizl said. “The legislature is showing complete disrespect for the people of South Dakota.”

Republicans pushed to repeal the law under emergency rules so the public couldn’t challenge the repeal on the ballot, as South Dakota law normally allows. They claimed they were repealing the legislation because it was unconstitutional, and said they’d replace parts of it in a piecemeal fashion.

The law encompassed ethics, lobbying and campaign finance reforms, and would have done the following:

  • 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 a 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.

Prior to Wednesday’s vote, a district judge had already enjoined the law from taking effect, saying that certain sections of it could be unconstitutional because a voter-initiated law cannot appropriate money ― as this law does for the public financing of elections provisions ― and because an ethics commission cannot exist outside of one of the three branches of government.

The state Supreme Court would have ruled on that, had Republicans not repealed the law themselves.

State Democrats said that the court process should have been allowed to go forward. “I don’t understand the emergency ... because if it’s enjoined, it didn’t go into effect,” Democratic state Sen. Billie Sutton, who voted against repeal, previously told The Huffington Post.

The law had an immediate effect on lobbying after voters approved it in November. Lobbyist-hosted events were cancelled. Two lobbyists resigned from the state transportation commission. Politicians openly fretted about not being able to get lobbyists to pay for their food and travel, and parties told them not to accept gifts from lobbyists.

Lobbyists were clearly happy about state lawmakers’ repeal vote on Wednesday. The South Dakota Chamber of Commerce & Industry, a business lobbying group, even held an ice cream social for lawmakers in the state capitol during the vote. Afterward, there were three lobbyist-hosted events for lawmakers in Pierre, South Dakota, on Wednesday night.

UPDATE: 6:30 p.m. ― Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed legislation to repeal the voter-backed anti-corruption law on Thursday afternoon.

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