But a passel of Republicans are proposing to expand South Dakotans right of referendum. They’re motivated by anti-science/pro-pandemic numbskullery, not any real desire to empower the us people, but their bill invites a broader discussion of the legislative power the people rightfully reserve to themselves.
House Bill 1111, brought by Representative Aaron Aylward (R-6/Harrisburg), would add resolutions “regarding a matter of health or safety that places requirements or limitations on students or employees of the district” to the small and eclectic class of school board decisions that South Dakotans can put to a local vote. School district residents would have 60 days after the adoption of any school health or safety requirement or limitation to collect petition signatures from 5% or more of their school district’s voters. A petition timely submitted with enough valid signatures would suspend the resolution in question and put it to a vote at the time of the next school board election. If a majority of voters at that election reject the resolution, the school board would have to wait a full year before considering “any resolution in contravention o the referral vote.”
Again, we know what Rep. Aylward and his right-wing co-sponsors (including Reps. Drew Dennert, Charlie Hoffman, Phil Jensen, Bethany Soye, and the dopiest legislator in Brown County, Kaleb Weis) are up to. They aren’t fighting for democracy: they’re fighting masks and vaccines and science and uppity teachers and health care professionals who dare put the lie to their piously professed and commitment to life by pointing out that they could save real lives if they submitted to the minor inconvenience of following a few simple public health rules.
There’s a whole bunch to critique about the likely anti-science intent of Representative Aylward’s bill. But as a devoted election nerd, I want to focus on the issue of referendum.
Like the pro-death cultism they imbibe from their godheads Kristi and Donald, their House Bill 1111 exposes several inconsistencies in Republican thinking. HB 1111 allows local voters to suspend and refer to a public vote any school health and safety measures, even emergency measures (like swift responses to sudden outbreaks of new variants of infectious disease). Yet voters have no such power to refer statewide emergency legislation dealing with public health or safety.
Under HB 1111, health and safety measures would join school bond issues, property tax opt-outs, capital outlay certificates, school consolidation, pre-Labor Day school start dates, participation in multi-district vo-tech centers, and the hiring of school gunslingers in the small class of school issues that citizens may refer to a vote. HB 1111 thus participates in the inescapable inconsistency of saying voters can have a direct say on some policies but not others. Why let voters delay emergency health measures for months (and consider that, in normal times, a health crisis could be over within a few weeks of taking sensible precautions) but not let them vote on curriculum decisions or sports eligibility rules? City and county referenda are not limited to such strangely specific topics; they simply must deal with legislative and not administrative decisions. We can refer any non-emergency state law, regardless of topic… and conversely, legislators can apply the emergency clause to almost any topic they see fit.
HB 1111 also applies an inconsistent petition deadline. Citizens referring municipal and county ordinances to a vote get twenty days from date of publication of the ordinance in question. Existing school referendum topics get 20 days to submit petitions—early start dates, capital outlays, bonds, opt-outs, and school gunslingers. However, statute allows 60 days to petition against multidistrict centers and 30 days after the last public hearing to refer consolidation to a vote. Why HB 1111 contributes to more divergence of petition deadlines is anyone’s guess.
If Representative Aylward were interested in real referendum reform and not just a sneaky way to empower local anti-science pandemic prolongers, he’d hoghouse House Bill 1111 to give school district voters the same power they have over city and county ordinances. A sensible hoghouse of HB 1111 would…
- eliminate these specific and somewhat arbitrary categories of referrable school board resolutions,
- eliminate the diverse petition deadlines,
- declare that citizens may refer any legislative decision of their school board to a public vote
- upon submission of a petition with the valid signatures of at least 5% of the registered voters in the district
- within 20 days of publication of the challenged resolution,
- with the election to be held within 60 days of validation of the petition.
Of course, if we really wanted to be consistent, we’d apply the constitutional standard of exempting emergency measures necessary for public health and safety from referral… and we’d include a strict definition of “emergency clause” that would stop legislators from abusing it to shield themselves from voters who would challenge some of their worse ideas. But that would probably get us into a debate over the single-subject rule.