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Tax-and-Spend Liberals Hold 92% of SD Legislature, Says Conservative Scorecard

A couple weeks ago, Citizens for Liberty released its 2018 Conservative Scorecard, which rated all 105 legislators on roughly a couple dozen bills that CfL considers useful reflections of loyalty to conservative principles, the state and federal constitutions, and the Republican party platform. Thinking they had a good thing going, the Rapid City-based conservative group doubled its efforts to produce a 2018 fiscal scorecard. CfL combed through all 535 bills to identify every bill that dealt with taxes, fees, or spending. They found 52 bills that got floor votes in both chambers and three more that got floor votes in the House (HB 1158, HB 1241, and HB 1308). Votes against increases or for cuts count as conservative; votes for increases or against cuts count as liberal.

Given all the talk we hear come election season from Republicans about opposing more taxes and more government spending, we should expect pretty conservative scores from the Republican supermajorities in Pierre, right?


Citizens for Liberty Fiscal Scorecard, SD House, 2018.
Citizens for Liberty Fiscal Scorecard, SD House, 2018.

Out of 68 House members (CfL left out Rep. Karen Soli and the late Rep. Sean McPherson, who missed this year’s Session due to illness), only seven Representatives voted fiscally conservative more than 50% of the time. Rep. Tim Goodwin (R-30/Rapid City) scored highest with an unimpressive 65%. The other six, all Republicans, were between 50% and 60%. Five of them were three votes or fewer away from falling into the liberal category.

48 House members—one more than the two-thirds majority necessary to pass tax hikes, special appropriations, and the budget—scored 20% or lower; i.e., a supermajority of the House voted for at least four out of five taxing and/or spending bills that came to the House floor.

The Senate results were more shocking.Citizens for Liberty Fiscal Conservatives vs Liberals, SD Senate, 2018.

Out of 35 members, only one Senator, Stace Nelson (R-19/Fulton), beat 50%, voting conservatively 71% of the time. Democratic Senators Billie Sutton (D-21/Burke) and Craig Kennedy (D-18/Yankton) actually placed 8th and 9th, respectively, for fiscal conservatism, and they barely broke 20%. 26 Senators—two more than the two-thirds threshold—scored below 20%.

The first plausible reaction to this fiscal scorecard is skepticism. Are Phil Jensen, Lance Russell, Neal Tapio, Jenna Netherton, and Jeff Monroe really “liberals”? Is my friend and Democratic ideological brother Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-15/Sioux Falls) really more conservative than my Republican District 3 Senator Al Novstrup? That’s bonkers, right?

But this fiscal scorecard is Citizens for Liberty’s most objective effort yet to categorize legislators as conservative or liberal. They didn’t pick and choose bills; they grabbed every fiscal bill they could and focused almost exclusively on full floor votes. They gave their scores based on the fiscally conservative language every Republican in South Dakota uses to get elected: we oppose raising taxeswe want to cut and limit government. By that simple definition of fiscal conservatism, the CfL fiscal scorecard makes clear that the vast majority of Republican legislators vote more often than not to break their core principles.

Maybe this contradiction between Republican slogans and voting records invites a more thoughtful conversation about “conservatism.” Maybe the fact that nobody in the Legislature comes close to voting 100% for lower taxes and less spending reveals the emptiness of simple Republican slogans and the impracticality of the absolutist assumptions underlying Citizens for Liberty’s scorecard. Maybe the CfL fiscal scorecard offers Republicans an opportunity to come clean and admit that we need pragmatists, not extremists; that taxes are the price of civil society, not theft; that government, far from a monster out to eat us, is just all of us working together to do important things that otherwise won’t get done; and that sometimes to do important things—to pay our teachers, patch our roads, and replace the dam at Lake Hiddenwood, we have to pay more taxes and spend more money than we did last year.

My friend Stace Nelson is having none of that conversation. I asked the scorecard’s sole Senate champion of fiscal conservatism how he felt about his score. Instead of gloating about his numero-unidad, the arch-conservative Senator Nelson expressed shock at his own score. He beat 90% on the general conservative scorecard; he couldn’t believe that he had supported tax, fee, or spending increases or opposed reductions 29% of the time. But he checked, and sure enough, he found CfL’s vote tally accurate.

Reviewing the bills, Senator Nelson didn’t appeal to pragmatism. He didn’t say that we really needed to impose application and renewal fees on post-secondary certificates, or transfer $1,000,000 to the State Conservation Commission, or spend $6,000,000 to build a veterans’ cemetery near Sioux Falls. Senator Nelson said he erred on several bills and wished he could have some of those votes back (he didn’t specify which). Emphasizing that he was not trying to excuse his votes, Senator Nelson said many tax-and-spend provisions escaped his attention in the procedural rush of Session. Fully aware of a higher volume of bills this Session, both chambers still deferred bills for several days, creating bill-jams that had to be cleared quickly to meet deadlines. These avoidable bill-jams lead to leadership shoving bills through without full debate. Amid this time crunch of legislators’ own making, even a contrarian like Senator Nelson can succumb to the social pressure to go along with his colleagues on some split-second decisions.

Senator Nelson’s fiscal shame and procedural angst suggest a third interpretation of the Citizens for Liberty fiscal scorecard, and perhaps the most useful: the combination of hasty procedure, special interest pressure, and one-party dominance hinders practical scrutiny of taxing and spending measures by even the most serious fiscal hawks, which keeps money flowing into programs without sufficient accountability, which ultimately contributes to the culture of corruption in Pierre. Finding corruption requires following the money, and if legislators don’t have time to follow the money (Stace is still torqued about getting the final budget as a new bill twenty minutes before the vote on the final day of Session), they’ll never find corruption. Special interests, public and private, lobby the most malleable sponsors to tuck favors into bills. With the minority party marginalized into ineffectiveness, majority party members may avoid conflict, as their impulses toward skepticism and debate are often overpowered by the need to go along to get along with fellow party members. Professedly conservative Republicans just vote the way they’re told, and the money keeps flowing.

The big deal here isn’t that Al Novstrup is a bigger liberal than Reynold Nesiba (although I can imagine some campaign postcards saying that is a big Biden deal). The big deal is that the Legislature isn’t working. We can fix it with multiple changes.

One is my weekend warrior Legislative schedule, spreading the Session out so legislators and citizens have more time to study and discuss bills.

Another is more accessible voting records. Senator Nelson brought Senate Bill 116 this year to make it easier for citizens to access specific legislators voting and attendance records and hold their legislators accountable. The Republicans on Senate State Affairs killed that bill, perhaps fearing exactly the kind of scrutiny of their votes that Citizens for Liberty now makes possible with their scorecards.

The third change, of course, is to elect more Democrats. Yes, yes, that means we liberal Dems need to work harder. But it also means conservative Republican voters need to get serious about voting on principles. Republicans have become so complacent in their supermajorities that they think they can vote against their principles on taxing and spending 80% of the time and get by with it. Citizens for Liberty themselves needs to lead the way in punishing the complacent hypocrisy. Citizens for Liberty needs to share its fiscal scorecard with all the conservative voters it can find, point out all those Republicans who vote “liberal” more often than Democrats, and tell those voters, “It’s better to vote for an honest Democrat than a fake Republican.”


  1. Curt 2018-06-04 01:45

    Absolutism. That is what I think this post is about and it’s what should give us pause in accepting anyone’s idea of a “scorecard”. Who’s keeping score? Maybe we trust them, but who ‘scores’ their opinions? Doesn’t my opinion matter just as much?
    I think issues and policies need to be debated individually and carefully, not dumped into a mill that magically churns out ratings on someone’s arbitrary scale.

  2. jerry 2018-06-04 04:50

    In your opinion Curt, how would you score the results and how would you do it differently? Who could argue your position on debating issues and policies on an individual chassis. For me, what has always irked me was these “hoghouse bills” that have everything bunched together for a must pass or else. That is not legislating, that is corruption.

  3. Buckobear 2018-06-04 06:45

    Actually, Citizens for Liberty is misnamed. These are the CAVE people: Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-04 07:53

    Curt, I agree that issues need to be debated individually and carefully rather than being shoehorned into one oversimplified absolutist framework.

    But this CfL scorecard isn’t really about opinions. This scorecard takes Republicans at their word—cutting taxes and spending is “conservative”, raising taxes and spending is “liberal”—and tests that word on 50+ bills that deal objectively with taxes and spending. They don’t introduce any subjective opinion about which tax or expenditure might be more important or justifiable or egregious; they just apply a binary conservative/liberal label, the same way Republicans do during their campaigns, and count up the results. This scorecard says that on 52 bills, Senator Stace Nelson voted 15 times to either raise taxes, raise spending, resist a tax cut, or resist a spending decrease. The fiscal scorecard says that on those same 52 votes, Senator Brock Greenfield voted 46 times to either raise taxes, spend more money, resist a tax cut, or resist a spending cut.

    This is the most objective, least cherry-picked scorecard Citizens of Liberty has produced yet. It is a stirring indictment of Republican campaign-season rhetoric about fiscal conservatism and the hypocrisy demonstrated by the voting records of the majority of Republicans in the Legislature.

  5. Donald Pay 2018-06-04 08:18

    Cutting taxes isn’t conservative, spending taxes isn’t liberal. And this scorecard is just stupid. Curt is right. These are people who don’t think beyond their own self-imposed absolutism. These “principles” end up being Swiftian in nature.

    If a conservative has an idea for a program, say, abstinence sex education, that program will cost money to implement. Is it conservative to support this program and provide it no appropriation to be implemented? Now that’s the kind of abstinence sex education this liberal could support.

    The know-nothings know nothing about fiscal conservatism, so they fall for the nonsense of anti-tax nihilism.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-04 08:25

    True, Donald, but the Republicans who are scored low by this card can’t avail themselves of that critique without abandoning their core electoral message. This scorecard could be extremely useful for Democrats who want to make their Republican opponents stammer and trip all over themselves.

  7. Stace Nelson 2018-06-04 08:31

    @Curt In fairness, CFL and other groups put the bills out there, and explain their support/opposition. Getting voters to look at how their elected officials voted is always a good thing.

    @Jerry “Hog-housed” bills and “vehicle bills” are corruptions if not out and out violations of our rules and SD Constitution. The omnibus type bills you describe, those are in fact illegally and violate our SD Constitution.

    @Mr “H,” in fairness, there are a limited number of the hardcore social issue bills that CFL, NARAL, etc., are interested in and grade legislators on. This Fiscal bill tabulation was shocking. Politicians HATE CFL’s highlighting their votes on social issues. This Fiscal one is even more hated as the RINOs can’t dishonestly dismiss it as “cherry-picking” as it has every bill tabulated every legislator. This cuts through the rhetoric like a hot knife through butter. It shows what most of us know, there are two aspects to conservatism: social and Fiscal. This shows as you touch on, more debate is needed on these bills to allow legislators a chance to realize the true impact of the bill. There is a Concerted effort to hit legislators with machine gun votes with little discussion to feed these tax and spend bills through as quickly as possible to get them passed. Lots of lobbying to raise tax (fees), and increase spending, often little to no opposition as there is no money being spent to keep taxes low so citizen lobbyists like CFL are often alone in their efforts to rein in the tax and spenders on their personal off time when they are able to make it to Pierre. This one was a real rude awakening for many of us.. you don’t see a lot of legislators posting this and bragging about their voting records. Most want this fonenas quickly as possible. I confess, I winced seeing it. Ugh.. I took out $750 of radio ads in 2012 apologizing for voting for the Gov’s crony capitalism bill that got referred, and encouraging people to kill it (they did). There’s a handful here that I wish I could change. The point CFL makes is that we are responsible for every vote and should be prepared to explain it, especially as you rightfully point out, the GOP planks on reducing taxes, spending, etc.

  8. Aaron Aylward 2018-06-04 14:03

    “It is a stirring indictment of Republican campaign-season rhetoric about fiscal conservatism and the hypocrisy demonstrated by the voting records of the majority of Republicans in the Legislature.”

    I couldn’t agree more, Cory. I, for one, would also rather have an honest Democrat in office compared to a RINO, at least you know what you’re getting. The state of South Dakota could sure use more Stace Nelsons in the state legislature. Or some Libertarians :)

    Buckobear, just because an organization is against tax and spending for a certain objective, it does not mean that they’re against that objective all together. Could it be that they’re against the use of force to obtain the objective?

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-04 14:52

    Chairman Aylward, I would revel in the chance to debate you or Senator Nelson in the South Dakota Legislature, or heck, on a stage at some public event sometime. Such an exchange would be far more instructive than wrestling with the oily slogans of typical RINOs.

  10. Donald Pay 2018-06-04 17:03

    People who take this scorecard seriously don’t understand how the legislative process works. If they are trying to say no on should ever introduce or vote for a bill with a tax or an appropriation, they simply are stupid. No appropriation = no state government. Hey, shut it down.

    Most legislators take their jobs seriously, even if they b.s. the public regarding taxes and spending. The no tax nihilists are all for this sort of nonsense. They really don’t know how to go into a budget and find where the waste might be, so they just say no. These folks that pull this stuff should receive a nice, smelly ppppffff right in their face when they give people the line that voting for a bill with an appropriation or revenue attached to it is somehow not being fiscally conservative. The state requires a balanced budget, and all of this gets worked out by the end of session, but you’ve got to move legislation to see which programs have support and which don’t, providing there is money available to fund them.

  11. mike fom iowa 2018-06-04 17:17

    Fiscal conservatism is fiscal irresponsibility in spades.

  12. Kevan sanders 2018-06-04 18:00

    Makes me sick to my stomach.
    What’s the point in having the majority in both houses when they vote with the minority Liberals.

  13. Aaron Aylward 2018-06-04 21:20

    Cory, that would be very good, for sure, and it may happen sooner than one could imagine! We may not agree on a lot of things, but thank you for everything that you report on.

Comments are closed.