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?
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.
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 taxes, we 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.”