Representative Will Mortenson (R-24/Pierre) has been a willing participant in the Republican war on initiatives. In 2016, he led the SDGOP campaign against Amendment V, the open non-partisan primary initiative. This year he was the prime House sponsor of Senator Lee Schoenbeck’s nefarious Senate Bill 86, which gives the Secretary of State the extraordinary power to play judge and reject proposed initiated amendments on his personal perception of Constitutional violations.
But in an essay to the SDGOP press release blog, Representative Mortenson appears to be feigning respect for the initiative process as cover for delaying any Legislative action on Medicaid expansion or further liberalization of South Dakota’s marijuana laws.
First, we should note that Mortenson jumps the gun a little in saying that “In the 2022 general election, South Dakotans will decide two questions with profound impact on our communities, our laws, and our budget: Recreational Marijuana and Medicaid Expansion.” Right now, no ballot measures have been approved for the 2022 general election ballot. The hospital lobby submitted its initiative petition for a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid on November 8, but Secretary of State Steve Barnett has still not validated that petition. Even if Secretary Barnett validates the petition, it could still face court challenges that keep it off the ballot, or hospital lobby bigwig Tim Rave could use his coalition’s pending petition for leverage with his Republican friends in Pierre just long enough to secure other Legislative wins for the health care industry and then order his sponsors to withdraw the initiative. Marijuana advocates are still collecting signatures, but they have submitted no petition. Thus, there is no guarantee that voters will get to vote on any initiatives next November.
But let’s assume Mortenson has (1) gotten word from his insider friends that Secretary Barnett’s first glance indicates the Medicaid petition has plenty of signatures and no one will challenge or withdraw the petition and (2) been getting texts day and night from the marijuana lobby saying they have more than enough signatures to put pot to another vote and are just collecting cushion signatures now to keep the issue in the public eye and turn up the heat on the Legislature to legalize marijuana sooner or face the wrath of pot voters in November and that we may thus (3) ignore the technicalities and assume that both Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization will be on the November ballot. From that assumption, Representative Mortenson concludes that the Legislature should keep its hands off both issues in 2022:
These blockbuster topics will cast a shadow over our Capitol when your legislature meets in January. I expect bills to be introduced that attempt to affect both measures—by limiting their scope, preempting their purpose, or altering their terms.
The legislature ought to let the people have their say. I do not think the legislature should cut in front of measures that thousands of petitioners have already signed. Both ballot measures should get a vote of the people, as the petition signers intended. If either ballot measure is passed, the legislature must ensure that such measure is implemented fully and faithfully [Rep. Will Mortenson, “Big Ballot Measures Coming,” Dakota War College, 2021.11.30].
Maybe Representative Mortenson reads the polls and doesn’t want to cross an electorate fed up with Legislative meddling in initiatives. But his declaration that the Legislature should avoid initiatives while pending and uphold and execute them if passed proposes an uncomfortable departure from the standing party line, which chants that we are a Republic Not A Democracy™ as cover for letting the Pierre good old boys’ club do whatever it wants with complete disregard for the will of those silly hornswaggled voters. Mortenson’s party demonstrated in spades this disrespect for the initiative process with its 2017 repeal of Initiated Measure 22. Mortenson has a pending marijuana initiative to justify resisting marijuana legislation in 2022 only because his party leader and lawyer class cooked up strained arguments to revoke the marijuana initiative voters approved in 2020. Mortenson himself sponsored and twice voted for the Legislature’s latest meddling with pending initiatives, 2021 House Joint Resolution 5003, now Amendment C, which Mortenson and his party placed on the June 2022 primary ballot specifically to monkey-wrench pending Medicaid expansion initiatives.
Republicans speak in favor of the initiative process only when it suits their purposes. Mortenson’s missive on Medicaid and marijuana reads like cover for legislators to continue delaying the practical and progressive policy action that tens of thousands of South Dakota voters have signaled with their petition signatures, not to mention their 2020 votes on Amendment A, that they want now. The South Dakota Legislature will never enact one of the crown jewels of Obamacare, but some Republican legislators have indicated they are willing to do the people’s will on recreational marijuana. Mortenson is offering colleagues an excuse to delay such action… and perhaps signaling to restive party members that the party leadership does not want discussion of marijuana cluttering up their 2022 agenda in Pierre.