House State Affairs did something strange yesterday.
Last year, the South Dakota Legislature unanimously approved creating a task force to study sexual abuse of children and recommend policy responses. The Jolene’s Law Task Force, named for Sioux Falls businesswoman Jolene Loetscher, who experienced sexual abuse as a child, held five meetings over four months in 2014. They came up with one bill, Senate Bill 70, to strengthen our mandatory reporting law, plus the beginnings of other policy recommendations to combat sexual abuse of children, like centralizing the reporting of sexual abuse to eliminate bureaucracy and creating a Child Advocacy Studies program in our Regental system modeled after a program at Winona State University. The task force isn’t proposing quick fixes; Loetscher says the task force is seeking “smart, thought-out, long-term plans.”
To continue its work to stem sexual abuse of children, the task force proposed Senate Bill 71, to authorize the task force to meet for another year. SB 71 would add one more member, a state’s attorney with experience in childhood sexual abuse prosecutions, to the fifteen-member team. SB 71 would authorize spending $21,000 this year, the same amount as last year, to support the task force’s work.
Everybody liked this bill in the Senate. The Department of Education and the Department of Social Services showed up to testify for SB 71, along with child advocates, Avera Health, and the Family Heritage Alliance. Senate State Affairs passed SB 71 unanimously on January 28. So did the full Senate on February 3.
Senate Bill 71 then sat on House State Affairs’ desk for four weeks. When they finally squeezed it onto their crowded agenda yesterday, they saved the task force extension for last. After lengthy testimony on other bills, the commitee took testimony for SB 71 alongside testimony for SB 70, the mandatory reporting bill. No one spoke against SB 71. Committee members asked no questions about the one-year extension of the task force.
Rep. Roger Solum (R-5/Watertown) moved SB 71 to the 41st day—i.e., to kill it. Here are his complete remarks on why he wanted to kill the childhood sexual abuse task force:
This committee’s gone on record here already this session. I really do think that we need to go back to the way we used to recommend a summer study or task force. I’ve chaired a number of summer studies over the past few years, and they’ve all been generated through the summer study process and the evaluation by not only the legislators but our LRC. And the suggestion I’ve made is if they want a summer study, get a group of legislators, and generally a good portion of 105 legislators need to put that down on their summer study form as opposed to having a group of—this small a group say, “Yes, you can have a summer study.” Perhaps we’re eliminating the opportunity for some other subject to come up. Who knows, after our transportation bill and so on, we may need to have another summer study on that. So, being we’re kind of limited on funding and the numbers of summer studies, I’d hate to lock us into this one when there may be others that need to be acted on as well. So that’s why I would ask to support the 41st day [Rep. Roger Solum, remarks on Senate Bill 71, House State Affairs Committee, 2015.03.04, timestamp 2:23:18].
No one rebutted. The chairman called for the vote. The two Democrats on the committee voted nay. The ten Republicans present voted aye.
A few hours later, every one of those committee members, including Rep. Solum, voted to bypass the way we used to recommend a summer study or task force, lock the Legislature into a task force on elder abuse, and spend $15,000 of their kind-of limited funding for that purpose. That measure, Senate Bill 168, passed the House unanimously yesterday afternoon, 68–0.
Jolene Loetscher says she and other task force advocates were “shocked” at the defeat of SB 71. No one had heard any rumble of opposition to the task force’s work last year or during the current session. Loetscher can’t imagine any partisan opposition—after all, sexual predators don’t check their victims’ party affiliations. Loetscher said she had wonderful cooperation throughout 2014 from the four Legislative members of the task force, a mix of right-wing Senator Jenna Haggar (R-10/Sioux Falls), reasonably moderate (by South Dakota standards) Republican Senators Alan Solano (R-32/Rapid City) and Deb Soholt (R-14/Sioux Falls), and Democratic Senator Peggy Gibson (D-23/Huron).
Stopping the Jolene’s Law Task Force now essentially throws away much of the investment made last year. Loetscher says task force members began their work thinking they could achieve a lot in 2014, but after the first meeting, Loetscher says they were “overwhelmed by the depth of the issue.” There’s a lot of work in progress, plus a need to look at different needs and policy responses to sexual abuse in urban, rural, and reservation settings. The $21K the task force might spend this year is a pittance to the economic costs of the physical and emotional damage (not to mention the moral harm) that we might avoid by preventing childhood sexual abuse. This task force is, as Loetscher describes it, government working “the way you want government to work,” solving problems intelligently.
But now House State Affairs has decided to spend no more on this topic and throw away much of what we’ve already spent.
Rep. Solum’s summer-study-process complaint can’t explain the death of the child sexual abuse task force, since he himself ignored that reason in supporting the elder abuse task force. SB 71 isn’t a bank-breaker—heck, the state will save more than $21,000 just by using the youth minimum wage. (Hmm… exploiting child labor to fund efforts against child sexual abuse… that’s not cool.)
Why did House State Affairs kill SB 71?
We need to smoke out an answer to that question. We also need Jolene’s Law and the good work of the childhood sexual abuse task force to continue. Members of the House, it’s time for a smokeout. Invoke Joint Rule 7-7, bring Senate Bill 71 to the floor, and let’s hear the real reasons someone to shut down the this important work against childhood sexual abuse.