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SB 56: Maher Wants to Quash Any More Efforts to Move Dewey County Seat

Last spring, Carl Petersen of Parade circulated a petition to move the Dewey County seat from Timber Lake (population 513) to Eagle Butte (population 1,260). Under state law, Petersen needed to collect signatures from 15% of the county’s registered voters (in Dewey County, that’s 513 signers) to bring the matter to a vote. According to Dewey County Commission minutes from July 14, 2022, Petersen submitted fewer than 500 signatures, so his petition failed.

Petersen’s proposal would have moved the Dewey County courthouse closer to a lot more of the people it serves, many of whom happen to be Indians. But the drive to the courthouse from Isabel (population 145) would have increased from 20 miles to Timber Lake to 47 miles to Eagle Butte. Isabel resident and Senator Ryan Maher (R-28) must really have hated that idea. He has filed Senate Bill 56 in what appears to be an attempt to make sure no one tries to move his courthouse or any other ever again.

SB 56 would raise the signature requirement to call a vote on moving the county seat from 15% to 40%, a higher signature threshold than I can think of for any petitionable matter in South Dakota. SB 56 would set a July 1 deadline for submitting such a petition (Maher’s language isn’t clear, but I assume he means July 1 prior to the next general election; petitions submitted after July 1, 2024, would still be valid but would just have to wait for a vote until November 2026.) SB 56 would limit the circulation period to six months; any signatures older than six months as of the filing date would not count.

SB 56 would also require that the petition include a proposed timeline for the relocation and the estimated cost of relocating the county buildings, facilities, and employees to the new county seat. SB 56 does not say who has to compose that fiscal estimate, but it appears that, unlike statewide initiatives, for which the Legislative Research Council prepares a fiscal note, SB 56 would require petition sponsors to cook up their own numbers on the cost of their proposal.

As a final nail in the coffin, SB 56 would raise the vote threshold for approving a change in county seat from two-thirds to three-fourths.

Perhaps the only saving merit of SB 56 is that it would give counties more time to move their seats if a vote is called and approved by voters. Right now, SDCL 7-6-7 says the county has 30 days to execute the voters’ wish for a move. SB 56 would give the county a full year to reseat.

Maher’s minoritarian rage against the idea of moving a county seat to be more responsive to its population makes for bad policy. The current system provides for sufficient guardrails against a capricious county seat change. SB 56 should be cast aside.


  1. John 2023-01-12 08:00

    Ha! Great analysis. Yet what is needed is the consolidation of 66 counties which were birthed in the horse-and-buggy age, to 23 counties.
    That would cut many government jobs, improve government efficiency and effectiveness.

  2. JO 2023-01-12 09:03

    In addition to consolidating 66 counties to 23, North and South Dakota should be one state. 4 US Senators is to many to represent these two low populated states. My hope is to discontinue the GOP dominance both states. I know it’s delusional but one can hope.

  3. larry kurtz 2023-01-12 09:10

    What JO said.

    I remember having a conversation back in the 90s with none other than Bill Janklow on SDPB when Dakota Midday was still called South Dakota Forum about consolidating counties and making two regental universities community colleges. He said he carried a “bloody shirt” for bringing a similar suggestion to the legislature and regents.

    How are 65 county seats and their bureaucracies either conservative or sustainable? They’re not; but, it is the way Republican cronyism and patronage built barricades to democracy by providing benefits of the public dole to those who say they deplore big gubmint in a state that hates poor people.

    The Wanblee district should be in Oglala Lakota County then Jackson should be rolled into Haakon, Jones and Lyman Counties. Stanley and Sully should be rolled into Hughes. Mellette, Bennett, Todd, Gregory and Tripp should be one county. Dewey, Ziebach and Corson should be a county. Butte, Harding and Perkins should be one. Lawrence and Meade should be one, Fall River and Custer should be one.

    Fine. Stanley might be happier being in with Lyman and the others.

    East River is a dead zone: smarter people than i can figure out how to sort out that mess. Everything east of the Missouri River is Cleveland anyway.

    Let’s face it: the only worse place than Pierre or Aberdeen to live is DC.

  4. Edwin Arndt 2023-01-12 10:18

    Larry, if democrats had the huge majority in SD that the republicans now have,
    you would have no better luck consolidating counties. Every county seat would
    declare war on the democrats as they would on republicans.

  5. Nick Nemec 2023-01-12 10:48

    A 40% signature requirement on initiated measures is onerous and simply an effort to reduce citizen involvement in government.

  6. Donald Pay 2023-01-12 11:33

    Forget all that anti-government and anti-tax ranting you hear from the peanut gallery. In reality South Dakotans love government. They love paying taxes for all that government. Never mind that much of it is inefficient, doesn’t do anything or from time to time is corrupt. If it comes down to paying taxes versus consolidating counties, they’ll pay taxes eight days a week.

  7. P. Aitch 2023-01-12 12:20

    blečháŋ, South Dakota (The Lacotah name for Timber Lake) is about as far away from anything Indian in Dewey County as any white privileged kicker could hope for. It’s 51% white and 43 % Indigenous. Dewey County however is 74% Indigenous and 25% white.
    Seems a bit supremacist to me.
    BTW, I loved living in Eagle Butte in the mid 70’s.
    I recommend binge watching the comedy/drama “RESERVATION DOGS” before the third season begins. – Indian life portrayed by Indian actors with Indian directors and producers. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  8. Richard Schriever 2023-01-12 12:26

    Conservatism in general no longer holds the meaning of fiscal prudence and sensibility it once did for the majority of “conservatives” in the USA. It now simply means “NO” to any idea or action that changes whatever it is the claimant of “conservatism” is accustomed to and feels comfortable with. It’s all about personal feelings and nothing more. This is why I ALWAYS surround my typing of the word conservative with air-quotes.

  9. Mark Anderson 2023-01-12 13:42

    Larry, all those wonderful museums are free in DC.

  10. Mark Anderson 2023-01-12 13:44

    Richard, conservatives always stand on the pulpit and scream STOP. It just doesn’t work.

  11. Mark Anderson 2023-01-12 13:48

    Hey man, Reservation Dogs is the best of the best. Can’t wait for more P. Aitch.

  12. BHSD76 2023-01-12 21:04

    We need county consolidation in South Dakota, but I’d argue based on land area served consolidation needs to happen in East river first. The one thing that needs to be happen West river is merging Jones (pop. under 1000) into Lyman. It’s a small land area county with a tiny population. The last county consolidation in SD was in 1983 when Washabaugh was merged into Jackson. Minnehaha and Lincoln need to be consolidated just for the fact a good chunk of Sioux Falls is in Lincoln County now. Even if consolidation efforts cut us down about a dozen counties that would be a huge cost savings. Will it happen? Doubtful. No one wants to lose their county seat. One reason (among others) we have gambling in Deadwood today is because Spearfish threatened to take the Lawrence County seat away from Deadwood in the 1980s and the town wanted more revenue to help support keeping it.

    I mean our license plate system is supposed to have 1-9 based on population to make more combinations and it’s still based on the 1950s census. 1 (Minnehaha) and 2 (Pennington) are still correct, but the rest are wrong. 4 (Beadle) is way wrong. 44 (Lincoln) is number 3 in population and 3 (Brown) is 4. Every wonder why 44 county plates end up being alphabet soup after a few years of an issue? That’s why. lol I like county numbering on our plates, but it needs to be updated. If we can’t even do that you think we can consolidate counties? Not a chance!

  13. grudznick 2023-01-12 22:04

    Don’t forget the school districts. South Dakota should have 20 counties, and 20 districts represented in the legislatures, and perhaps 53 school districts.
    There are a few towns that should cease to be towns, too. Blackhawk. Rockerville. Hermosa. Silver City. grudznick could go on and on, but my good friend Lar and I have sorted this out a dozen different ways. Show them the maps, Lar.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-01-13 05:22

    Nick’s right: 40% is unreasonably burdeonsome. So is the 3/4 threshold. Maher is displaying one more instance of the white Republicans’ fear of being outnumbered and their effort to maintain power through minority rule and apartheid.

  15. Arlo Blundt 2023-01-13 11:45

    While I agree with the concept of county reorganization, I also believe that Donald Pay is right as rain when he says South Dakotans love to vote for county offices and don’t mind paying county taxes. Counties and School Districts are the governments closest to the people, and it would seem, the most neglected when it comes to “quality candidates”, but, none the less, the most dear to the hearts of our voters. Janklow was correct that a politician runs plenty of risk messing with either.

  16. larry kurtz 2023-01-14 09:27

    New Mexico is about 80% larger than my home state but does just fine with 33 counties and 23 tribal nations.

  17. grudznick 2023-01-15 11:33

    Lar, do you still have the napkin where you and I settled on how Mr. Maher’s District should be carved up with pieces given to urban Indian districts?

  18. larry kurtz 2023-01-15 11:37

    We watched Pat Powers eat that napkin because it still had a little fudge on it, remember?

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