Yesterday was the last day any new bill could be placed in the Legislative hopper. The bill count stands at 272 in the House and 188 in the Senate. Those totals are a bit below the recent historical average (2000–2018) of 279 in the House and 207 in the Senate.
Even in that slightly lower output, it’s easy to miss interesting bills. That might explain how black sheep Senator Stace Nelson (R-19/Fulton) got Senate Bill 104 to the Senate floor and forced his own leadership into an embarrassing move to bury his provocative proposal.
What’s to bury? Well, Senate Bill 104 would subject legislators to random drug testing. Once a week, three to ten legislators selected at random would have to pee in a cup at the Capitol. Legislators peeing hot would have their drug test results read into the record in their chamber and face discipline or expulsion.
Nelson’s fellow right-winger Representative Tim Goodwin (R-30/Rapid City) floated a bill to test all legislators for drugs last year; it died a swift death in committee. Senator Nelson has brought similar bills in past Sessions only to meet similar resistance. But yesterday Senator Nelson, who peed clean for twenty-plus years in the Marines, got Senate Judiciary to pass SB 104. Senator Nelson argued that the statutes the Legislature has passed to impose warrantless searches and seizures on numerous state employees oblige them to lead by example. The only nay came from Senator Craig Kennedy (D-18/Yankton), who offered no comment but who, as a lawyer, may feel the same way I do about allowing the government to trample the Fourth Amendment with one more search without a warrant.
But four hours later, Senate Majority Leader Kris Langer (R-25/Dell Rapids) said there’s no frackin’ way she’s peeing in a cup for Stace Nelson (after all, he’s not Gene Abdallah).
Well, Senator Langer didn’t say any of that. She just moved to refer SB 104 to Senate Appropriations for a second hearing. That’s how the GOP leadership killed Nelson’s legislative drug test proposal last year. That’s how they’ll kill it this year.
But the referral didn’t happen without a fight. Senator Nelson rose and called his leader’s move “underhanded” three times. He called the motion “shenanigans” and a “duplicitous” ploy: “we’re trying to send that to the deepest darkest regions where it can be killed without having a public eye on it…. I do resent—I’m offended at the underhanded fashion this was taken to try and sneak this through the system.”
Senate Appropriations chair John Wiik (R-4/Big Stone City) rose to declare his committee “neither deep nor dark” and warned that randomly testing legislators for drugs has “some potential fiscal implications.” Senator Wiik thus asked the the Senate “shine another flashlight on it.”
Senator Lance Russell (R-30/Hot Springs) opened with a paper cut: “I tend to agree with some of the sentiments of the chairman of the Appropriations committee about the depth there.” Senator Russell alleged that Appropriations is trying to run the entire Legislature. As chair of Judiciary, he said he would have been willing to talk about the referral before the hearing, but no one came to him for that discussion. This lack of consultation, said Russell, is “very disrespectful to the process and to the other committees.” He urged the members to follow regular order and let SB 104 come to the Senate floor.
Senator Langer defended her motion: “I believe that there is a significant fiscal impact to this bill as well as a potential prison impact statement.” Note that SB 104 says nothing about sending anyone to prison, although let the record show that Senator Langer apparently believes many of her colleagues would fail a drug test. As for actual cost, the fiscal note run on Nelson’s bill last year indicated drug tests are $55 a pop. Ten weeks, ten tests max each week, 100 tests max total… $5,500. That’s not much more than the taxpayer dollars she and Brian Gosch spent going to ALEC meetings in FY2017. But hey, Republicans are all about fiscal relativism.
Senator Nelson closed debate with one more blast, calling the motion “shanghaiïng” and “dry-gulching” (“to ambush with the intent of killing or severely mauling“) and challenging senators to “lead by example,” keep the bill on the Senate floor, and show their willingness to subject themselves to the same drug testing they force on the Highway Patrol and Corrections officers.
Nelson got the necessary one-third standing second to force a roll call vote. He won 13 other Republican votes. Leader Langer won 13 other Republican votes. The five Democrats in the chamber all went with Langer. With only one vote to spare, Langer successfully defused Nelson’s drug-test time-bomb.
If we ignore Senator Nelson’s framing, I’ll contend the Democratic caucus made the wrong move here. On purely procedural grounds, they should have stuck with Stace. There’s no reason to refer SB 104 to a second committee. The cost of the bill is known and trivial. Let the bill come to the floor and vote against it on the merits. Giving Stace a win on procedure against his own leadership would have been one more burr under the GOP’s saddle, one more way to keep them off balance and slow their agenda. Democrats could turn to Senator Nelson and say, “Hey, Stace, we disagree on policy, but we stand with you in opposing these kinds of procedural shenanigans and power plays,” which respect and assistance could perhaps induce Stace and his wingnut caucus to work with Democrats to stop other power plays and hypocrisy by the Noem-captured “leadership” of the Senate GOP.
I don’t support random drug tests. I’ll vote against warrantless searches almost every chance I get. But I’ll happily help Senator Nelson fight underhanded shenanigans by the Republican “leadership” any day.