If Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Austin/Aberdeen makes it back from his Texas vacation in time for Senate State Affairs this morning, he’ll hear six measures, only two of which might do any good for South Dakota.
Up first is Senate Resolution 1, a time-waster from the Senate Democratic and alleged election law violator Jordan Youngberg. The Dems and Youngberg ask that the Senate call for an immediate end to the federal shutdown. Move to table, get on to actual South Dakota business.
Senate Bill 69 comes from the right-wing extremist caucus, led by Senator Stace Nelson (R-19/Fulton). SB 69 would require that the House and Senate convene for floor debates in the morning and hold committee hearings in the afternoon. I can see some good from this move.
Not counting the first three days of Session, which were occupied with speeches from the Governor, Chief Justice, and the tribes, the House has met for an average of one hour sixteen minutes daily, while the Senate has met for an average of 54 minutes. They’re not working very hard.
Meanwhile, committees start at 7:45 a.m. and go mostly in two rounds until noon. Hearings on each bill have to accommodate testimony from sponsors, agencies, lobbyists, and regular citizens. Committees usually end up pressed for time and have to defer bills to later dates, causing grief for folks who’ve come to Pierre to testify and now have to return another day to hear and be heard the their bills of interest. To make matters worse, to make a 7:45 hearing, I estimate that at least 78% of South Dakotans have to get up at four and be on the road by five a.m. (and that’s pushing it even from Aberdeen and Sioux Falls and impossible from Yankton, Sisseton, Rapid City, and Spearfish) or come the night before and spring for a motel room. Either way, they burn up a full day’s pay and risk a long, cold drive in the dark.
Imagine if we flipped the schedule. House and Senate could convene at nine or ten in the morning, leaving themselves plenty of time to wrap up a heavier agenda by lunch. Start committees at one, and committee testifiers can get on the road to Pierre at nine a.m. Flipping those times could help more citizens give committees their input. And with no lunch, caucus, and session to rush off to, committees, especially the second-round committees that would start at 3:00 or 3:30, would have more leeway to run a little overtime and make room for more citizen input.
One downside to the flip is that it would be harder for school groups to get to Pierre in time to see the full House and Senate in action. From a civics education perspective, it would be a bummer not to see the chambers at work. However, from a civic participation perspective, it may be more important to accommodate participants than spectators. Sitting in the gallery and watching the pageantry and debates of a floor session is impressive, sometimes majestic, but sitting in a committee hearing, seeing fellow citizens speak directly to their elected leaders, and perhaps even coming to the mic themselves to speak on interesting bills is even more majestic and democratic.
Plus, legislators, think about it: no more 7:45 a.m. committee hearings. Get your rest, get up at six, go for a run out to the island and back, study the bills, and come in fresh and hot at 9:30 for some serious debate.
Let’s give Senate Bill 69 a fair hearing and think about the opportunities for better participation from all parties in the Legislative process.
Senate State Affairs goes downhill from there this morning. Senator Jim Bolin (R-16/Canton) brings a shell bill, Senate Bill 87, to “enhance South Dakota.” Just kill that—no committee should endorse a bill that doesn’t say what it does. Passing a bill that merely says, “The Legislature shall pursue opportunities to enhance the state,” violates the sacred principle that I hear legislators regularly sing, that in our Legislature, “Every bill gets a hearing.” Every bill that passes should get two committee hearings, one in each chamber; this empty carcass denies us the opportunity to sniff through the guts that Senator Bolin and others may be planning behind closed doors to stuff into SB 87.
Senate Bill 90 has a lot of sponsors, Republican and Democratic, including the vacationing Senator Novstrup, but it’s a bad anti-transparency bill. Right now, candidates have to file financial interest statements, telling voters where their immediate families get more than 10% or more than $2,000 of their income. We don’t get dollar figures, just employers, stock funds, etc. Elected officials have to update those statements within fifteen days of taking office and then by January 1 of each year they hold office. SB 90 ditches the annual reports, meaning the public would be left uninformed of any changes in the Governor’s sources of wealth (and special interest influence) for four years. Public Utilities Commissioners would go off the radar for six years. Nuts to that. We need more information about public officials, not less. Nix SB 90.
House Bill 1008 has sailed through the House to the Senate. This bill originally cut the heads-up time parties had to give the state and public of their conventions from 30 days to five. Representative Tony Randolph (R-35/Rapid City) got skittish and amended that to ten business days. Rep. Randolph probably reasonably reduced the possibility of snap conventions allowing intra-party coups and other machinations.
Now how about an amendment requiring candidates for Legislature to give us ten days notice when they plan to skip Session for a business convention?
House Bill 1048 rolled unanimously through the House. This measure proposes keeping even more secrets from the public by letting local boards and commissions and other elected officials not tell us about how they are spending our tax dollars on cops, jails, and emergency response resources. As with elected officials’ financial interests, we need more information, not less, from our governments.
There’s your briefing on today’s Senate State Affairs hearing, Senator Novstrup. I hope that helps you get back up to speed after your big vacation.