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SJR 1: Four-Year Terms for Legislators an Exceptionally Bad Idea

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My Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) hates answering to the general public. Thus, he has joined sixteen other Republicans (and two Democrats, Representative Ray Ring and House Minority Leader Jamie Smith—come on, guys, really?) in sponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 1, a constitutional amendment that would cut in half the number of chances we voters get to hold legislators accountable and fire them at the polls.

Article 3 Section 6 of the South Dakota Constitution gives legislators two-year terms. SJR 1 would lengthen those terms to four years. Instead of having to check in with voters and face election every two years, legislators would be guaranteed their seats and pay and perks for four years, the same as the Governor and most other statewide officers. In Presidential election years, the only state-level offices on our ballots would be Public Utilities Commissioners, who serve staggered six-year terms.

Article 3 Section 6 limits legislators to four consecutive terms in a given chamber. SJR 1 reduces that limit to two consecutive terms—same time in office, just fewer elections.

Four-year terms for legislators smells like part of the Legislative power grab Speaker Steven Haugaard (R-10/Sioux Falls) promised. SJR 1 is bad for that reason and many more.

The Legislature does not need more power. The Legislature has too much power as it is to rush legislation through a geographically remote and isolated Capitol with minimal press scrutiny. The Legislature has too much power to rewrite, repeal, and reduce citizen initiatives (minimum wage in 2015; IM 22 in 2017; HB 1196 in 2018). Giving legislators two more years free of facing voters at the polls only further insulates them from public pressure and facilitates further arrogant disregard for the will of the people in favor of their self-interest.

Fewer elections mean less participation in democracy. During a Session when legislators and the Governor are all abuzz about promoting civics education, SJR 1 takes away chances to exercises one’s civic duty by voting. We don’t need civics stickers on diplomas; we need more “I Voted” stickers that we earn at the polls every two years.

An SDPB reporter dared to wag yesterday noon that maybe there’s a connection between the new 90% pay raises legislators got this year and the desire of SJR 1’s sponsors to keep their jobs for four years. The whole point of raising pay was to make it possible for more South Dakotans to run for office. SJR 1 takes away opportunities to run for office.

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Four-year Legislative terms reduce checks and balances. Imagine Billie Sutton comes back in 2022 and not only ousts Governor Noem but convinces the voters that the corruption and incompetence of the Noem/McCaulley Administration was so bad that we need to clean House and Senate as well, and we elect Democratic majorities to both chambers. Governor Sutton and the Democratic Legislature then go ape with their lurking socialism: expanding Medicaid, funding universal pre-school, imposing a progressive state income tax, offering a free first year of public higher ed. The quickest constitutional way to check that socialist revolution would be to put Republicans back in the Legislature in 2024. SJR 1 would give a governor and a Legislature free rein for four years.

Four-year terms would weaken the voice of the people in another way. During his two terms as Governor, Dennis Daugaard got to appoint eighteen legislators to vacancies. Governor Noem has already appointed two. Instead of subjecting those picks to voter review within at least two years, SJR 1 would allow the Governor to fill vacancies with unelected yes-men and yes-women for up to four years without review by the people.

House Majority Leader Lee Qualm (R-21/Platte) and House Minority Leader Jamie Smith (D-15/Sioux Falls) contend that four-year terms would provide more “continuity” in the Legislature. Rep. Smith also complains about feeling like he’s constantly campaigning. Both points are rubbish. Do your jobs right, and the voters will approve continuity every two years. As for the “constant” campaign… really? Most legislators do their part-time winter gig in Pierre, hit the crackerbarrels, and then disappear from the public radar. If it weren’t for the biennial elections, we might not ever hear from some of our legislators.

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As a constitutional amendment, SJR 1 would have to go to a public vote in 2020. Sponsors of SJR 1 can thus equivocate: I don’t necessarily support less accountability for legislators; I just want to give the people the chance to vote on it. So I guess at the point where I argue that people should get to vote more often on more stuff, I should support placing SJR 1 on the 2020 ballot. But doubling legislators’ terms from two years to four is bad for democracy. If legislators do put this foul power grab on the ballot, we should vote it down hard.


  1. Nick Nemec 2019-01-17 08:39

    Ten is not divisible by four. Would redrawn district lines after each census stand for two election cycles after one census and for three election cycles after the next census? I don’t see where the printed bill addresses this.

  2. Troy Jones 2019-01-17 08:58

    Like term limits, this is a proposal that limits voter choice.

  3. TAG 2019-01-17 10:14

    Currently there are only 5 states with 4-year terms for their state House: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Maryland and North Dakota.

    So the deep south and two other states. Not great company in terms of state-level corruption. All the rest have 2-year terms.

    By contrast, 30 states have 4-year terms for state senators. I guess I wouldn’t be opposed to it for the Senators, as it follows a national trend. I’ll vote no anyway.

    I’d also like to see all the house districts subdivided, just like the two that were forced to do so because of the reservations. That would further distinguish the house from the senate, and allow for more diversity in the house IMO.

    If the house and senate are just mirror-images of each other, like we have now, why even waste taxpayer’s money on the illusion of checks and balances, and go unicameral like Nebraska?

  4. South DaCola 2019-01-17 10:18

    With all the clowning around our legislature does, I wish there was 1 year terms. 4 years, HELL NO!

  5. mtr 2019-01-17 10:40

    I assume a four year term might also give them leeway to dip into the state retirement system, which I believe was attempted last year.

  6. Donald Pay 2019-01-17 11:22

    No on SJR 1. What’s the benefit to citizens? None. What’s the benefit to special interests? Lots. This is just more corruption from the Legislature.

    Wisconsin has 4-year terms for State Senators. Not good, but we do have larger Senate districts and single member House districts, which is better.

    The Legislative Branch is past due for a major tuneup. They tried back in the 70s, but it failed because they tried to fiddle with the initiative. I’d go unicameral, increase the Senate to 50 seats with 2-year terms, double the pay, increase the session to 50 days, reaffirm the initiative and referendum and make it easier for state citizens and harder for outside interests.

  7. Kal Lis 2019-01-17 11:25

    Given the variety of folks who are posting that they are against SJR 1, the cynic in me thinks that it’s a bad idea that’s sure to pass.

  8. Jason 2019-01-17 12:36

    I don’t like it.

    Tag seems to be an expert on State level corruption.

    Please to tell us about New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and California in terms of State level corruption?

  9. Buckobear 2019-01-17 12:41

    Yet another attempt to compete with Mississippi.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 12:47

    Nick, good point! SJR 1 says nothing about redistricting. It would take affect with the winners of the 2022 election. The winners of the 2030 election would then serve until 2034, three years after the completion of redistricting. That means the 2021 districts would be in effect for three terms of the Legislature.

    The redistricting in 2041 would affect the 2042 elections. Thus, the districts drawn in 2031 would only be in effect for two Legislative terms.

    Holy cow—at the point where SJR 1 causes citizens to be properly and proportionally represented and suffering under districting schemes that sometimes last for eight years and sometimes last for twelve, SJR 1 might not even withstand judicial review.

    SJR 1 should be dead right there.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 12:48

    Jason, please don’t divert us from SJR 1, which does not affect corruption in any other state. We are pleased that you agree that SJR 1 is a bad idea. Please stay in that topic here. Raise your other topics in other threads where they are relevant, or start your own blog.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 12:49

    Fear not, Kal Lis! The variety of problems with this resolution and just the gut level, “You want a four-year contract?!” response it’s sure to draw from the crackerbarrel crowds, should shut this thing down fast.

    But we do have to make that noise.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 12:51

    Troy, thanks for dropping by again. I’m all for hoghousing SJR 1 to leave terms at two years but to strike term limits.

  14. John Kennedy Claussen, Sr., 2019-01-17 12:51

    There are many reasons, but one of the major reasons that we have not elected a Democrat as governor in over 44 years in this state, is because the governor’s race always happens in a non presidential election year; which assures a lesser Democratic voter turnout at the polls.

    Now, with this amendment, the GOP and an unwitting Democratic leader want to make sure that electing Democrats to the state legislature becomes even harder by only allowing their elections in non presidential years.

    Therefore, the real intent of this law is to assure further and greater Republican dominance by moving the election of state legislators into a cycle that is definitely advantageous for the GOP, but not for the people, or the Democratic Party here in South Dakota.

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 12:52

    TAG, I don’t want Senators getting a big head. They get enough of a perk getting to run solo and sit at a less crowded desk in the prettier chamber. This is one area where we should not follow a trend: everyone in the Legislature should face the voters every two years.

  16. Moses6 2019-01-17 13:37

    We have three big heads one on another blog, and two senator in D.C.

  17. leslie 2019-01-17 16:10

    Longer terms gives Thune-types greater opportunity to vote with Trump for sanctions forgiveness for Putin’s Russian Billionaires. Senate vote: 57-42. Dems needed a couple more Republicans of good conscience. Thune ain’t one of them. Dusty moved from the legislature to the House. Four year terms open the gate and keep obstructionist republicans in power.

    We do not need incompetent career politicians. Stace ect.

  18. Debbo 2019-01-17 21:37

    Cory said, “Giving legislators two more years free of facing voters at the polls only further insulates them from public pressure and facilitates further arrogant disregard for the will of the people in favor of their self-interest.”

    I find that and the above comments very adequate summations of why this is such a bad idea.

  19. grudznick 2019-01-17 21:54

    One year terms would be dandy. Back in the day, the legislatures worked very hard from dawn until after dusk, but now they loaf about and eat for free while padding their wallets with fat cash; all while proposing those insaner than most law bill. Back in the day, grudznick would have kicked over the spittoons next to the desks of the loafing oafs and whipped the body into a fine tuned machine. This overgodder, Mr. Haugaard, seems rather full of himself.

  20. grudznick 2019-01-17 22:29

    grudznick predicts the legislatures will chicken out on this idea because they know when they put their privileges up for public votes they get their lunch handed to them. Not a free lunch either, the kind of lunch they have to buy. If they open this can of worms they will probably end up having to run every year and the chaos and lack of leadership in the legislatures will escalate, and society will crumble more. Organized religion will try to take over, but that will result in war as it has for centuries. And the big fellows who are faster than most will end up standing at the end, not the clarinet players who can dance nice.

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 22:38

    One-year terms? I was thinking about that. Would it work? Would it have any effect on the number of people running?

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 22:40

    Moses, that big head on the other blog hasn’t had anything original or useful to say for years… just like the Senators whose press releases he runs.

    I’m still o.k. with U.S. Senators have six-year terms… but our U.S. Senators don’t seem to be getting any more done right now than our resolution-drunk State Senators.

  23. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-17 22:41

    Excellent point about political intent, JKC. I won’t vote a bill up or down purely for partisan reasons, but you expose a reason the GOP leadership would see this amendment as partisan gain for themselves. Vote it down (and get Reps. Smith and Ring to withdraw their sponsorship).

  24. John 2019-01-18 09:13

    Hoghouse it.
    Return with a real proposal: fewer legislators, aka a 49 seat unicameral with the power to subpoena, consent on judicial nominations, consent on cabinet nominations, etc.
    And move the state elections to the presidential election cycle dates,

  25. MD 2019-01-18 11:59

    If they want 4 year terms, they should switch to a biennial legislature. More time to plan and implement policy changes, fewer redundant policy fights every year. They still get 2 legislative sessions to push their ideas, but there is more time for committee work to put together consensus legislation based on the identified needs of the state.
    Pierre’s hospitality market might not be able to withstand the loss of consistency with January/February travel.

  26. Debbo 2019-01-18 23:22

    They would like more space for these kinds of things. (from Daily Kos)

    This morning Paul Krugman tweeted out the following:

    “A thought about where we are as a nation: We’re living in the age of the unsurprising revelation. Is there anyone who doesn’t already believe that Trump-Putin-treason is a real thing? Even Trump loyalists surely know it’s true, they just think it’s an OK price for the racism 1/

    The question instead is when and whether the evidence will become so dramatic, so blatant, that Trump’s defenders won’t feel able to keep pretending they don’t know. That is, it’s not really about what we learn but about how it plays 2/

    Think of the Steve King story as a dress rehearsal. Everyone knew what he was, and has for years. Somehow, though, we reached a tipping point where GOP leaders felt they had to say “We’re shocked, shocked to find open racism going on in our party!” 3/

    I don’t know if we’ll ever reach that sort of tipping point with Trump. But even if we do, remember: they’ve known all along, but were willing to sell out America as long as it was convenient 4/”

    That’s really it in a nutshell, isn’t it? I would only make one slight tweak — “they just think it’s an OK price for the racism and the tax cuts.”

    And his last line there is very important. When Individual-1 goes down, there is going to be an absolute tidal wave of republicans that turn on a dime and pretend like they are just good, traditional conservatives that are ready to get back to being the old GOP. It is going to be our job to be there for every one of them to say “Nope, no way — you KNEW he was dirty all along. You don’t get to wash this stain off.”

  27. leslie 2019-01-20 12:32

    And the stain will especially remain at SCOTUS. Gorsuch must be pitched out on his ear, and Kavanaugh left in the dustbin with fellow perpetraitor Thomas. Unless Trump becomes a proven puppet nullifying all of his official appointments on the courts.

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