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SB 161: Stace Nelson Loses Another Sally Against Corruption in Pierre

Senator Stace Nelson (R-19/Fulton) tried to throw another spoke in the wheel of corruption and unaccountability in state government yesterday. Unfortunately, Senator Nelson presented such a thin case that, once again, Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to support his bill.

Senate Bill 161 sought to require statewide elected officials and their top deputies to log their hours on duty and be “physically present, and conduct official duties, in the capital for at least six months of each year.” SB 161 would forbid compensating top officials who choose to live outside of Pierre for their mileage from and to home.

SB 161 sounds good, but Nelson’s opening testimony to Senate State Affairs yesterday consisted entirely of anonymous testimony about unnamed statewide officials choosing to live outside of Pierre and coming to work late and strolling out of the Capitol early. In rebuttal, he said multiple state employees came to him with additional stories of abuse of power, but again, he could give no specific instances.

It’s not hard to imagine why Senator Nelson would choose not to name state employees who may have witnessed certain state officials keeping Wednesday golf-day hours. Senator Susan Wismer is pushing Senate Bill 148, a measure to protect state employees from retaliation for communicating information  about state government functions to legislators or constitutional officers when they are off duty. That measure got out of the Senate yesterday with just two votes to spare. State employees thus struggle to get even that limited whistleblower protection.

I have heard from one source a story very similar to what Senator Nelson told Senate State Affairs yesterday. I deem that source reliable. But because that source is afraid that putting that source’s name with the story would destroy the ability of that source and that source’s family to make a living in South Dakota, and because I haven’t found independent documents to support the story, I can’t run it.

Governor Noem’s advisor Tony Venhuizen testified that we already prohibit statewide officials from receiving mileage payments for commuting from their hometowns if they choose, like Governor Noem, to maintain residence outside of Pierre.

State Auditor Rich Sattgast noted that his comings and goings may be hard to track because sometimes he carpools with his wife and walks from her office and sometimes he rides his bicycle. South Dakota may thus take heart in having a Green state auditor.

Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) moved to kill SB 161, saying that the proper place to tackle this problem is at the polls, not in a bill attacking the character of unnamed elected officials. While I have to point out that it’s not really a character attack on anyone to read anonymous testimony with names redacted. But I will faintly agree with my jumble-word-gaming Senator in the notion that a Legislative committee hearing is apparently not the place to address real corruption in state government, since legislators continue to labor under the fiction that they must not speak ill of any public official by name. Under that fiction, it’s hard to learn anything specific listening to legislators talk to themselves and protect their party lines.

The Republicans on the committee praised their own merits as hard workers and projected their self-satisfaction onto our higher elected officials, whom we are to trust are busting their chops on our behalf. Senator Al Novstrup, who skipped three days of the Session during our coldest snap last month to attend an amusement park conference in sunny Texas, said he’s working all the time. Senator Bob Ewing closed the non-debate by declaring flatly, “we do not have corruption in South Dakota in this body or within the constitutional offices….”

And strangely, the two Democrats on the committee felt the need to join their words to the Republican narrative. Senator Craig Kennedy (D-18/Yankton) expressed his confidence in state government and the ability of the voters, not a time clock, to decide their merits. Senator Troy Heinert (D-26/Mission) expressed concern that putting state officials on a time clock would raise issues with overtime and other federal employment law. (Employers can log salaried employees’ work time, and timesheet vendors will be happy to help.) SB 161 was going down. It didn’t need Democratic help. Democrats could have used Senator Nelson’s bill as a platform to raise their own concerns about corruption in state government. Democrats could have couched their technical opposition in more of a, “Wish we knew more, wish people weren’t afraid to step forward, wish corruption weren’t given such free rein in Pierre.” Instead, Democrats spoke gently, in a way that leaves intact the Novstrup-Ewing narrative that there is no corruption and that the only problem is troublemakers like Senator Nelson who dare speak up, if imperfectly, about it.


  1. Donald Pay 2019-02-14 08:53

    In my opinion the bill didn’t go far enough. I would require state officials and legislators to keep a log of their meetings and contacts when discussing state business.

  2. o 2019-02-14 08:59

    The city of Pierre is facing an existential crisis. For all the poking fun at the city, the make up of state employees and management positions really puts Pierre above other similar communities in terms of wages and education; those elements set a tone fo a community. The city is seeing a brain drain as fewer want to come to Pierre to take those jobs, opting to find similar employment in more urban settings (with more urban advantages). Even worse, state departments (especially heads) are looking at moving operations out of Pierre. That was the root of my objection to Governor Noem’s choice to not make Pierre her full-time home; I thought she needed to set the example of staying in Pierre full time to help make a statement that Pierre IS where our state government is centered and where our best and brightest come to work.

    I aplaude Sen. Nelson’s vigilance on corruption; I think this issue has deeper roots.

  3. Jenny 2019-02-14 09:13

    I applaud Stace also for trying and am disappointed and surprised our Dems did not support him. This was a pretty sensible bill when our tax dollars are paying people and they don’t even log their hours?

  4. jerry 2019-02-14 09:53

    Just one more slow dance that accomplishes nothing but scuffed shoes. Why not operate the state’s business remotely? That’s done all the time, as long as they live in the state. Pierre cannot support an airport, a mall or basically anything other than grocery stores and bars, so why not have the workers onsite and the political appointees stay home and save us some money. They can access Skype to feel important, just like the legislators should as well. Keep the corruption at home…where it belongs.

  5. Senator Stace Nelson (R-Fulton) 2019-02-14 15:44

    Riddle me this Batman? If the governor ran on a campaign of cleaning up the corruption in Pierre and of Pierre needing more transparency, which was echoed by the Democrats? How was it that they’re all in lockstep now saying there’s nothing to see here there’s no corruption in Pierre..

    Remember the two ballot initiatives that so many supported because the perception of corruption in Pierre because… You know… The dead family down in Platte and the dead former secretary of economic development all dead in the middle of… State corruption. I’m sick as a dog so I’ll quit rambling. I did my duty

  6. Jenny 2019-02-14 15:58

    Get better, Stace, and the Dems that voted against this need to be taken out to the tool shed. I always expect the Pubs to vote down good bills like this but when it’s Dems also, it’s a shame.

  7. leslie 2019-02-15 04:54

    Corruption from the very top of the senate: “I informed the President I will prepare-support his Emergency Declaration for [the wall]”. Mitch McConnell (2.14.19). Trump’s Valentine Surprise stepping around the constitution and another devastating shutdown. BBC. Senate #2, John Thune statement: “bipartisan … $22B … for physical barriers … preventing another government shutdown ….” Twitter 2.14.19.

  8. leslie 2019-02-15 05:14

    Sen Schumer: “Declaring a national emergency [ to reallocate more than $1.3B (for “wall” funding) … an unlawful act, a gross abuse of power of the presidency … a desperate attempt to distract ….” Twitter 2.14.19

  9. Jenny 2019-02-15 08:33

    Everyone should listen to Wismers Senate Bill 148 testimony And her stories of not being able to talk to state employees because of them being told they can’t talk to legislators. Now if that isn’t an environment of secrecy and fear……
    Cory you need to list every Republican legislator that voted against Sue Wismers good Bill.

  10. grudznick 2019-02-15 10:35

    Odd that Mr. Sattgass testified against this bill to make people accountable for their working hours. Good on you, Mr. Nelson.

  11. Porter Lansing 2019-02-15 12:23

    Jeremiah (grudznick) Murphy complements Sen. Nelson? That’s a first. I suppose since Murphy has to look up into Nelson’s eyes, face to face now, he’s a bit more measured with his insults. The anonymous grudznick is a hypocritical horse’s ass.

  12. grudznick 2019-02-15 17:07

    Mr. Lansing’s mind holds that grudznick is anonymous. grudznick’s mind holds all of Mr. Lansings goats.

  13. Porter Lansing 2019-02-15 17:36

    grudznick – Here’s the info from Alcoholics Anonymous. You need to start meetings, again.
    Alano Club
    325 Deadwood Ave
    Rapid City
    See map: Google Maps
    South Dakota US
    Alano Club phone # 605 342 9808

    District: 2

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-02-17 11:29

    I’m thinking about O’s comment on how fewer people want to live in Pierre and Jerry’s comment about running government remotely. Perhaps that’s why Noem wants more rural broadband: so she can get better bandwidth at her house in Hamlin County and conduct all of her gubernatorial duties by video conference from home.

    I actually wouldn’t mind that. Maybe it is time to completely decentralize state government. Let every state employee with an office job work from home, or at least from some state government office in their hometown. We’d widen our recruiting pool if we could tap more those smart Sioux Falls people to work in state government and not make them move to Pierre. We’d reduce the ability of the Governor to clamp a code of silence on state employees in the company-town isolation of Pierre, where she can hold state employees’ working spouses hostage. And we’d all see more of our state officials in our hometowns, with more reporters being able to keep track of their comings and goings.

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