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South Dakota Republicans' "state of emergency" is a brazen political coup against anti-corruption law

Sorry North Carolina GOP, Republicans in South Dakota may pull off the grandest political heist in the nation


Sophia Tesfaye
January 25, 2017 2:58PM (UTC)

South Dakota voted for Donald Trump last November by 60 percent and a majority of the state's voters also passed a wide sweeping anti-corruption bill. However, unlike the brash billionaire sent by Republicans to "drain the swamp" in Washington, the bill passed by voters is being stalled by Republicans who don't want it to succeed.

Republican lawmakers in South Dakota have refused to enact a ballot measure instituting campaign finance, lobbying reforms, public financing for campaigns and creating the first independent ethics commission in the state's history. The bill passed with 52 percent the vote.

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The South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act makes it illegal for lawmakers to receive more than a total of $100 annually from lobbyists in the form of “any compensation, reward, employment, gift, honorarium, beverage, meal, food, or other thing of value made or given directly or indirectly.” Under the new law, an independent ethics commission would investigate ethics and campaign finance complaints lodged against legislative and executive branch officials.

The measure would also provide each citizen with two $50 vouchers to be used as contributions to participating candidates who agree to lower contribution limits and spending caps.

Before the passage of IM-22, South Dakota was the only state to not have rules or limitations on gifts from lobbyists. The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity recently ranked South Dakota 47th in the nation for accountability, noting that "little to none of [state legislative and lobbyist interaction] is reported to the public in any detail.”

The passage of the measure by voters was a massive blow to the political efforts of the right-wing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, whose Americans for Prosperity advocacy group heavily backed the opposition to the ballot initiative. Campaign finance reports filed with the South Dakota Secretary of State's office show Americans for Prosperity, a cornerstone of the Koch brothers' political network, contributed $590,000 of the $609,000 opponents raised.

Of course, no ballot initiative in South Dakota can pass without Republican support because there simply aren't enough Democrats in the state. Still, South Dakota Republicans have been fighting the measure since its passage. Days after the election, a group of two dozen GOP legislators and others challenged the measure’s constitutionality in state court, declaring that voters were tricked into supporting something that could be unconstitutional, for a variety of reasons. The initiative is on hold while the lawsuit moves forward. The judge said a final decision on the law's constitutionality would rest with the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard has argued that voters were “hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures.” Republican House Majority Leader Lee Qualm said, "We need to get rid of this as quickly as possible."

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Now GOP lawmakers want a full repeal of the voter-approved law, and Republican leaders said a bill that would repeal the sweeping government ethics overhaul approved by voters in November could be on the governor's desk by the end of the week. The House and Senate State Affairs committees approved the repeal on a 10-3 vote Monday. The committee's two Democrats and a lone Republicans voted against the measure.

The committee took the unusual step of implementing emergency rules, which would overturn the measure immediately and block a possible referendum that would allow voters to overturn the legislature's actions. Normally in South Dakota, if the legislature repeals a citizen-backed initiative, the voters can propose a referendum to reverse the repeal. But if it’s eliminated under a so-called state of emergency, citizens can’t reverse that repeal. To adopt those emergency rules, the legislature needs a two-thirds majority, which Republicans provided. Lawmakers are also debating a bill that would double the required signatures to get an initiative on the ballot in South Dakota.

South Dakota's Argus Leader described Republican efforts this week:

The committee room felt like a courtroom Monday as lawmakers got an opportunity to cross-examine and strike back at supporters of an ethics law that campaigned on a message that South Dakota legislators are corrupt.

For more than two hours, the Argus Leader reported, Republican lawmakers grilled supporters of the law and asked them to substantiate claims set forth in their campaign. More than two-thirds of Republican lawmakers in the House voted for the repeal effort Tuesday; not one Democrat did.

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"This is a brazen overturning of the election results. It's a brazen rejection of the will of the people, and it will likely create a similar backlash to efforts to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics a few weeks ago," said Josh Silver, a spokesman for Represent Us, which sponsored the law. "Everything in this law is common sense."

Supporters of the so-called Anti-Corruption Act said Republican efforts to eliminate the law without the ability to refer it back to the people posed a serious issue. Represent South Dakota warned that the repeal measure (HB 1069) was so poorly worded that it “may actually legalize bribery.”

When Republicans in Congress similarly attempted to kill ethics enforcement as their first act of the new session earlier this year, Donald Trump stepped in:

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Voters in South Dakota, however, don't have a leader to step in and stop Republicans from dismantling ethics reform in their state. The bill, which is sponsored by nearly 50 of 70 representatives and 27 out of 35 senators, requires a two-thirds margin in each chamber to pass. The Senate would vote on the proposal next, and Gov. Daugaard has already made clear he would sign a roll-back. Gov. Daugaard has also proposed that the legislature not fund aspects of the measure if it ends up becoming law.

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This is not the first time Republicans in South Dakota have attempted to rescind the will of voters. In 2014, voters passed a ballot measure increasing the minimum wage, but GOP lawmakers again claimed voters didn't realize what they had done and ultimately passed legislation barring anyone under 18 from benefiting. This November, voters approved a ballot measure to override the legislature's changes to the law by 71 percent.


Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

MORE FROM Sophia TesfayeFOLLOW @SophiaTesfaye

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anti-corruption Ballot Initiatives Ballot Measures Ethics Koch Brothers Republicans South Dakota

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