Democracy won a few battles in the Legislature yesterday. Most notably, the House killed House Bill 1275, which would have required ballot question petitioners to obtain signatures from at least eighteen different Senate districts and would have required folks signing ballot question petitions to mark their Senate district instead of their county. A federal court in Colorado ruled a similar measure unconstitutional just last week.
Democratic Rep. Julie Bartling and Republican Rep. Tona Rozum warned that HB 1275 would impose significant if not insurmountable administrative burdens on the Secretary of State’s office and county auditors.
Republican Rep. David Lust noted that the sponsor of HB 1275 had presented no evidence that ballot question petitions don’t already gather signatures from a wide swath of South Dakotans thanks to petition drives at county fairs and other big events that draw South Dakotans from all over the state. Rep. Lust noted that HB 1275 (like, I should mention, every other “reform” that Republicans have proposed to complicate the initiative and referendum process) only makes circulating petitions more expensive, which invites even more big money influence into the process.
Democratic Rep. Oren Lesmeister noted that the 18-district requirement would make it impossible for West River grassroots groups to mount a ballot question petition drive on their own—and he’s right! There are only twelve Senate districts in West River, meaning West River organizers would have to invest in long trips to Aberdeen, Huron, Mitchell, and Sioux Falls to see their interests put to a statewide vote. Meanwhile, Rep. Lesmeister observed, one could just drive up and down the I-29 corridor and mount an all-East River petition drive that would satisfy the strictures of HB 1275.
Republican Representative Larry Rhoden agreed with his Democratic neighbor. He said HB 1275 would be an “administrative nightmare” that “accomplishes very, very little.” He said all of his rural neighbors tell him they have had chances to sign ballot question petitions. Petitioners don’t need to drive out to Union Center for signatures, said Rep. Rhoden. The reality now is Union Center folks all come in to Rapid for groceries. They see the petitions there and can sign all they want.
HB 1275 died on a 20–45 vote:
The only lingering support for HB 1275 seemed to come from Republican sponsor Steven Haugaard’s archest-conservative clique (plus Speaker Mickelson, whom we know hates initiative and referendum and would be happy to kill it to prevent knotheads without law degrees from making laws). Yet my own strongly conservative Republican Representatives, Dan Kaiser and Drew Dennert, both voted Nay, as did neighboring District 2 Republicans Lana Greenfield and Burt Tulson.
All the Democrats in the room, naturally, voted against HB 1275 and for people power. Well done, House!
In other pro-democracy news, House State Affairs killed two of three anti-initiative amendments that were aimed at our November ballot. Absent any proponent testimony and on strong opposition from the Chiesman Center for Democracy, the Presentation Sisters, and Senator Reynold Nesiba, House State Affairs sent HJR 1008, the proposal to allow the Legislature to veto constitutional amendments approved by the voters, on a 7–6 vote. Seeing that writing on the wall, Speaker Mickelson then withdrew his own even worse HJR 1007, which would have taken away voters’ right to initiate constitutional amendments entirely.
House State Affairs still let pass HJR 1006, Speaker Mickelson’s amendment to apply the single-subject rule to initiated constitutional amendments. That’s not all bad: HJR 1006 would have to go through us voters, and we can vote it down if we’re inclined in November.
But overall, Wednesday was a pretty good day for popular democracy in the South Dakota Legislature… perhaps as good a day as we’re going to get from the current clubby Republican clique in Pierre.