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Belfrage Talks Ethics Commission with Heidelberger and Nelson

In a remarkable double-header this morning, Greg Belfrage liberal blogger me at 8:05 and Republican State Senator Stace Nelson at 8:35 as his first guests of 2017. Holy cow—that’s good radio! Next time, Greg, bring us both to the studio and give us the full hour. All Belfrage will have to say is Ready—wrestle!

Much of our conversation revolved around the judicially-stymied Initiated Measure 22 and the voters’ desire to tackle corruption in Pierre. Belfrage agrees with voters, Marty Jackley, and Shantel Krebs that South Dakota needs an ethics commission. Yet in our conversation this morning, he contended that voters didn’t really want all the other parts of IM22, especially not the public campaign financing. Belfrage asserted that voters didn’t realize all that other stuff was in IM22.

Understandably, Belfrage works hard to assure his voting listeners that he’s not calling them stupid. As he said in November, voters were “hoodwinked“:

I’m not blaming voters. They were hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures.

Proponents of IM 22 talked a lot about transparency of state government.

However, there was no transparency in their television ads.

The ads for IM 22 never once mentioned taxpayer funded political campaigns and the millions required to pay for them.

Instead, they suggested lawmakers were accepting cash bribes [Greg Belfrage, “Think Twice Before You Sign Another Petition,” KELO Radio: The Daily Dose, 2016.11.29].

South Dakota general election ballot, Initiated Measure 22.
South Dakota general election ballot, Initiated Measure 22.

In our discussion of IM22 this morning, Belfrage also said the Attorney General’s explanation of IM22 may bear some responsibility for voters’ not knowing what all was in IM22 when they cast their votes.

Now let me back that truck up. “Publicly funded campaign finance program” on the 2016 general election ballot in both the title and the Attorney General’s explanation. In both spots, “publicly funded campaign finance program” appeared before “ethics commission.” In the IM22 Pro statement in the official Ballot Question Pamphlet, sponsor Don Frankenfeld spoke of the public campaign financing and didn’t mention the ethics commission. And while IM22 sponsors focused their ads on corruption and the ethics commission, the Koch Brothers spent great sums warning everyone about the publicly funded campaign finance program, which opponents blasted on multiple media as “welfare for politicians” months before the Pro ads hit the airwaves. If voters were watching ads and their mailboxes, they were at least as aware of IM22’s publicly funded campaign finance program, the Democracy Credits, as they were of the ethics commission. If voters tuned out the media and didn’t pay attention until they picked up their ballot, they saw the words “publicly funded campaign finance program” and a lot more words about it before they got to “ethics commission.”

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m with Belfrage, Jackley, and Krebs on creating a state ethics commission. If that’s the only portion of IM22 that the 2017 Legislature salvages, that’s still progress. I just don’t think the ethics commission stands a chance of passing in the Legislature, because the Legislature is run by the same Republicans who (a) voted to kill the ethics commission proposed by Rep. Peggy Gibson in 2015 and (b) sued to kill the ethics commission approved by voters two months ago. The Republicans won’t give a hoot and a half about what the people want as long as Republicans personally can count on getting reëlected.

But I don’t see evidence to support Belfrage’s assertion that voters only want the portion of IM 22 he likes and not the whole package. I think that, like me, they’d take an ethics commission by itself. But on Election Day, voters had plenty of information in front of them about the ethics commission, the public campaign financing, and other parts of IM22, and a majority voted to enact all of those things.

Oh yeah, and then Stace Nelson came on the radio! While I want to believe that Senator Nelson and his fellow arch-conservatives could do as much as Democrats to fight the cronyism of the Janklow-Rounds-Daugaard mainstream SDGOP, Nelson avoided Belfrage’s questions about what legislation he would propose to tackle corruption. He wouldn’t advocate an ethics commission. He rejected campaign finance reform, mistakenly projecting his own do-it-yourself approach to campaign finance onto his well-heeled GOP colleagues:

It gives the voters the wrong idea that their legislators are somehow in the back pocket of the special interests. At the national level, yeah, that’s the case, it’s ugly, it’s not the way things are supposed to be. But at the state level, 99% of their legislators struggle to get enough money to buy the newspaper ads, to put out the postcards…” [Senator-Elect Stace Nelson, on The Greg Belfrage Show, 2017.01.03].

At least Senator Nelson is willing to grind the EB-5 and GEAR UP axes and remind us that people died because of the GEAR UP corruption and Melody Schopp is still Secretary of Education.

Senator Nelson may excuse his unwillingness to bring an ethics commission bill by shifting the burden of tackling corruption to “an active, aggressive media.” He acknowledged Bob Mercer’s “instrumental” role in keeping South Dakotans informed on state government and wished him a speedy recovery.

Stace has something there. If we can’t get our Legislature to empanel an ethics commission, and if we can’t create one by ballot measure that will pass constitutional muster, then maybe our next-best ethics commission is a team of reporters who dig for dirt and take no prisoners.

But Stace—couldn’t you use some back-up on fighting corruption? We have commissions for sports and hairdressers. We can afford a commission for ethics, somebody to look through the campaign finance reports and help you hold the Pierre cronies accountable during the majority of the year that you’re back at the farm. Grab the ethics commission provisions from IM22, revise them to satisfy Judge Barnett, and introduce them as a standalone bill.


  1. Roger Cornelius 2017-01-03

    Dang! I’m called away from Dakota Free Press for a couple of days and upon my return I find Cory has posted so much information it will take me awhile to catch up.
    Politicians saying voters were hoodwinked about IM22 are doing nothing more than blaming voters for their mandate.
    Over on the Powers #__blog there was plenty of coverage of IM22 and how it was so bad for republicans that don’t want to be regulated and monitored.
    Pierre republicans need to stop their denial of corruption and ethics and do what is right for the state. Of course they won’t do that, corruption is in their DNA and a part of their culture.
    Have we heard of anyone coming forward and saying they voted for IM22 but didn’t know it included an ethics commission or the publicly funded campaign program. If there are voters out there that can say they didn’t understand all of IM22, it would be nice to hear from them.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2017-01-03

    Sorry about the overload, Roger! I hope you were called away for rest and recreation and not trouble!

    You ask the same question I ask of Belfrage and anyone else drawing selective lessons from the vote on IM 22. We have anecdotes, but we don’t have rigorous exit polls or post-election surveys. My democratic axioms require me to trust the voters and consider them innocent until proven guilty, informed until proven uninformed, intentional until proven manipulated. Beyond my default assumptions, I find evidence of intense advertising and news coverage discussing more than just the ethics commission.

  3. moses6 2017-01-03

    Most think he is a wind bag’ maybe thune needs to come home and make it warm again.

  4. mike from iowa 2017-01-03

    How can reporters dig for dirt when access to government records is denied?

  5. Stace Nelson 2017-01-03

    Cory, we will have to agree to disagree. I do not see the solution to the problem of corruption in our executive branch, which has a long history of co-opting the legislative & judicial branch, of giving it another commission or board for it to co-opt. As I pointed out in the interview, the solution to this problem is to get our checks and balances working again within and without our state government. Shad Olson recently publicly noted how our tv news in SD has been co-opted to the point that they actively run interference for corrupt politicians. Corruption is a bipartisan problem that is not the sole domain of any political party. There are measures to combat it, the simplest is calling a spade a spade and stopping the blind partisanship we see on both sides of the aisle. I refuse to defend the indefensible simply because someone shares my party registration. We need more Democrats & Republicans doing the same thing.

  6. grudznick 2017-01-03

    “Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!”
    Why am I reminded of my good friend Sibby squawking like a parrot “Secular Humanist! Secular Humanist! Secular Humanist!”

    Mr. Nelson thinks anybody who doesn’t agree with him is corrupt, and he is entitled to that opinion.
    I am entitled to my opinion: The voters were hoodwinked, because they are mostly stupid.

  7. Roger Cornelius 2017-01-03

    No problem with the overload, Cory, I’m rather enjoying it.
    No cause for alarm, just had stuff to do like prepare to hibernate during this frigid weather.
    Stace, will you be a part of the republican coalition that plans to dismantle IM22 and ignoring the will of the people?
    republicans should be use to being hoodwinked, it has been going for nearly 40 years.

  8. grudznick 2017-01-03

    Mr. Nelson probably has some hoodwinking of his own planned, which he will foist upon the masses with sideways deals made over free dinners in shady back rooms. I, for one, think it will be very entertaining.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2017-01-03

    Shad! Where is he, anyway? Where did he make that public comment about the co-opting of SD TV news?

    Stace, I agree that the media can act as one of the checks and balances we need to root out corruption. But if you’re not going to advocate statutory solutions by the Legislature (and I understand as a conservative that’s not your wont), then that’s all the more reason we must diligently protect the next best check we have: the people’s power of initiative and referendum.

  10. Stace Nelson 2017-01-04

    @Cory On his FB.

    You are sounding the alarm way too prematurely. No one said that there are not measures in research and which will be considered this next session. In nearly every legislative conversation I have been a part of since Nov 9th, ideas and recommendations have been discussed.

    In nearly every organized case of GOvt corruption in the USA ( Tammany Hall, Dailey Chicago Machine, Louisiana, etc, etc) the problem occurs when the checks & balances in our govt becomes so co-opted that instead of checking corruption, they join in facilitating it.

    There has already been major shake ups occurring to correct this problem. I expect we shall see even more over the next two years.

  11. Darrell Solberg 2017-01-04

    Self-denial seems to be another forthcoming defense of the anti-IM 22 crowd. For 40 years we have found out the perpetrators of questionable actions shouldn’t be allowed to investigate themselves, simply because the questions, suspicions, and allegations aren’t answered!! They are swept under the rug. When an office holder, politician, state government official has NOTHING to hide, you’d think they’d welcome transparency, government oversight, and an Independent Ethics Commission!! Seeing how they don’t support that, makes me wonder what they are hiding, ignoring, or are they simply saying that they are above the law?

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2017-01-04

    Stace, true, no one said there are not measures processing at LRC. But asked specifically by Belfrage multiple times for examples of specific legislation, you declined to name one. Plenty of legislators have mentioned legislative proposals that they are working on on other topics. A listener to yesterday’s program could reasonably conclude that you aren’t proposing any measures.

    What kinds of anti-corruption proposals are in the mix and coming to the hopper?

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