South Dakota lawmakers struggle to rise above the mark set by the federal government

Governmental ineptitude found in our own backyard

Jacob Knutson

With haphazard federal orders and political blunders swallowing up media coverage, it can be difficult to allot attention to operations at the state level.

But, on multiple occasions, South Dakota lawmakers have struggled to rise above the low, swampy watermark set by the federal government.

To defend a bill that allows individuals with enhanced permits to carry concealed firearms in the Capitol, State Senate Majority Whip Larry Rhoden (R) hit an alarm meant to alert authorities of actual emergencies on Feb. 6 just to see how quickly authorities would respond.

Only when an uniformed officer arrived five minutes later did Rhoden reveal he pressed the panic button, reciting the old adage that “when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.” But that wasn’t the whole truth.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol said in a statement that the Capitol Protective Services Division was alerted within 25 seconds of the alarm but assessed the situation using video monitoring systems. The protectors saw a calm committee room with an armed state trooper in plainclothes already in the room.

Nonetheless, just to be sure, they sent a uniformed officer to confirm there was no emergency.

Not only did Rhoden break the law by falsely reporting an emergency, shoot a hole in his defense and throw South Dakota police officers under the bus, he revealed his own ineptitude in not realizing the capital building installed surveillance cameras.

After Rep. Mathew Wollmann, R-Madison, confessed to sexually relations with legislative interns who were believed to be over 21 and resigning in January, the Joint Committee on Legislative Procedure voted down legislature explicitly barring lawmakers from engaging in inappropriate activities with legislative pages.

While the incidents involving Wollmann were between adults, the problem is the nature of legislative seats. Because the seats are a position of power, a lawmaker could, and still can, extort assistants for sex. This bill would have solidified the prohibition of sexual contact, absolving the possibility of exploitation, but the legislature has decided to leave a gray area instead.

South Dakota voters spoke in August of 2016, passing Initiated Measure 22 by a three-percent margin. The measure included reforms to campaign finance and set up an independent ethics commission. In short, the bill was nothing but controversial.

Lawmakers hounded the bill, saying it did not reflect the will of the majority of voters since it was written by an organization outside of South Dakota.

While the measure certainly raises ethical questions, it also reflects voters’ deep concerns of corruption within our state government. And rightly so, since South Dakota was ranked 47th in anti-corruption legislation and was given an “F” in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation.

But that didn’t cross legislators’ minds.

Instead of respecting the will of voters and asking for compromise, Governor Dennis Daugaard and the state legislature claimed their constituents, the citizens who voted them into office, were “hoodwinked by scam artists” and repealed the measure.

But not only did they repeal it, they are currently trying to make it harder for voters to introduce future measures to the ballot.

Several bills changing ballot measure process are moving through the legislature right now, including changes to procedures for filing and delaying implementation of ballot measures.

The outcome of these bills weakens voters’ ability to change their government, thus harming democracy.

While these instances don’t highlight the good our legislature has done, they do reflect the many character flaws within it.

They show that some South Dakota lawmakers will go to great lengths to prove a point, even if it means breaking the law. They show that lawmakers are wary to moderate the power of their offices. And they show that many lawmakers don’t worry about the will of the voters, because, based on the last election, South Dakota constituents will vote them back into office, regardless of their actions.

Jacob Knutson is a sophomore political science and journalism major from Rapid City, S.D.

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