We’ll get to see who, if anyone, shows up this morning in Senate Local Government to testify for or against Senate Bill 180, the retread of Representative Jon Hansen’s latest favorite hobby, hamstringing the initiative and referendum process.
Last year Hansen’s first stop on the anti-petitioner train was House State Affairs. Paid lobbyists from the South Dakota Biotechnology Association, South Dakota Retailers Association, and South Dakota Chamber of Commerce all testified for Hansen’s circulator registry and badges; Dakota Rural Action and Frank Kloucek spoke against that infringement on democracy and the Constitution. In Senate State Affairs, Biotech and Retailers repeated their support for enlisting more state help in their efforts to stop citizens from having a say; opponents did not appear at that hearing.
South Dakota Biotech exerted itself mightily in 2017 and 2018 to keep Initiated Measure 26, Rick Weiland’s prescription drug price cap, off the 2018 ballot. They certainly are keen on being able to keep their lobbying power focused on hungry, isolated, and malleable legislators. The Retailers and the Chamber also tend to work against ballot measures more often than they work for them, because businesses also prefer a captive audience. The fewer choices the masses can make, the more efficiently they can make money (on that theme, see also Senate Bill 157, Governor Noem’s attack on local control in favor of “streamlined” CAFO approval).
SD Biotech has five lobbyists on the payroll this Session: the Governor’s own Matt McCaulley (who, with Jon Hansen, led the well-paid legal team that killed the IM 26 petition), Drew Duncan, Grace Beck, and Representative Sue Peterson’s kin, her hubby and former legislator Bill Peterson and their squeaky clean son Robert. The Secretary of State says Robert’s authorization to lobby for Biotech is still pending, so Dad might have to handle SB 180 today on his own.
SD Retailers have four paid lobbyists: Doug Abraham, William Van Camp, Nathan Sanderson, and Jim Hood. Sanderson spoke to last year’s circulator registry and badge bill; he’d be the logical choice to speak again to SB 180.
The SD Chamber has just one paid lobbyist, David Owen… and that’s all they need, right? Well, Owen is backed up by four paid lobbyists for the Sioux Falls Chamber plus one more each from the Yankton, Brookings, Huron, and Rapid City Chambers, but the state Chamber usually handles ballot measures. Owen spoke to HB 1094 last year; given Owen’s recognition of the value of this blog on Legislative matters, and given that this blog is the only source of analysis that I’ve seen on Senate Bill 180, perhaps Owen is perfectly positioned to come to Senate Local Government this morning and say, “Heidelberger told you guys last year that circulator registries and badges were unconstitutional, but you didn’t listen; let’s double-check this proposal and make sure we don’t get embarrassed in court again.”
The anti-petition lobbyists may not have to work very hard on Senate Bill 180. First, it’s another dip into the arcane world of petition circulation, something that very few people in the state understand, let alone participate in. As I discovered when I tried (and failed) to refer last year’s circulator registry and badge bill to a vote, conversations that start with the words initiative and referendum almost immediately glaze a majority of eyes (too many syllables, too little daily context). Legislators aren’t going to analyze a complicated bill dealing with the minutiae of ballot measures; they’re going to do what caucus leadership tells them to do. The Republican leadership is going to tell its members to vote aye, and they will, and that’s that.
Second, few defenders of petition rights are going to work up a committee sweat on SB 180. I won’t—I’ve got to work today. I had a hard enough time rousing public angst over last years registry and badge plan because it had no immediate effect on the 99.9% of voters who have never circulated a petition. SB 180 targets only paid circulators, mostly the out-of-state mercenaries who sneak around our petitioner-residency requirement to shake down signers with blind salesmanly zeal. SB 180 actually makes life easier for grassroots volunteers petition circulators by repealing the burdensome and legally perilous circulator affidavit and by removing the unconstitutional forced disclosure of circulator name and contact info from the circulator handout, so for the most part, passionate petition volunteers will look at SB 180 and say, “No skin off my nose!”
I could see SB 180 having some indirect impact on volunteer circulators: if we start seeing paid circulators on the street with badges, and then we spot a badgeless petitioner, voters may start to think the badge indicates legitimacy and badgelessness signals law-breaking. “Where’s your badge?” they’ll ask, starting off the voter–volunteer conversation on a note of suspicion, which the circulator will have to dispel with an unnecessary discourse on the arcanities of SB 180 and the legal distinction between paid and volunteer circulators and oh yeah would you still like to sign my petition which has nothing to do with all those lengthy details I just bored you with and—hey, where’d they go?
The paid circulators probably won’t show up to testify against SB 180, because their leaders are all mostly elsewhere, running petition drives in other states, and not paying attention to the South Dakota Legislature. Besides, they have the money to register their people and distribute badges.
Senate Local Government and the lobbyists won’t spend much time on SB 180 today. SB 180 is an opportunity to quietly slap another burden onto the initiative and referendum process and reduce the power of the people in a way that’s hard to rouse public sentiment against. That may be all the more reason to watch to make sure the lobbyists and the Republican caucus don’t sneak addition burdens into an already problematic bill that, like its 2019 predecessor, is likely to drag the state into court.