So much for good feelings.
Top legislators from both parties clashed with Gov. Dennis Daugaard Friday, the first public sign of strife in a legislative session marked so far by an unusual degree of cooperation and bipartisanship.
The spark for the battle was a bill to create a commission to oversee boxing, mixed martial arts and other fights.
Daugaard opposes such a fight commission, believing it “legitimizes a violent and dangerous activity. He, following the decision of his predecessor Gov. Mike Rounds, declined to appoint members of a previous commission created in 2009. Daugaard cited concerns about legitimating the activity and about cost.
The decision to not appoint the commission didn’t sit well with legislators Friday.
“How many other appointments that were the will of the Legislature has the governor failed to appoint?” asked Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg. “I can’t tell you how angry that would make me.”
Supporters of a fight commission believe it could regulate fights that are already occurring, unsanctioned, in South Dakota, and promote safety by imposing restrictions.
“Having unsanctioned events in our state could potentially lead to athletes getting hurt,” said Sen. Mark Johnston, R-Sioux Falls, the bill’s prime sponsor.
But the Senate State Affairs committee’s decision to unanimously pass the fight commission bill, Senate Bill 84, didn’t faze Daugaard. The governor didn’t mince words after the vote.
“I’m offended that the state would legitimize cage-fighting and the bloody violence that those kinds of spectacles create,” he said. “I think it’s interesting that we declare that it is a crime for one human being to strike another, and yet the state now proceeds to legitimize, and label a sport, cage-fighting.”
A fight commission could impose rules and safeguards on fights, such as requiring insurance and the presence of doctors, testing fighters for infectious diseases and requiring fighters who’ve suffered concussions to take time off.
In 2012, a 26-year-old man died in an unsanctioned mixed martial arts fight in Rapid City. Supporters of SB 84 said that man, Dustin Jenson, could have been saved by a fight commission that would have prevented him from fighting that night due to previous blows to the head.
South Dakota’s lack of a commission to oversee fights has resulted in legitimate boxing and mixed martial arts events avoiding the state. Creating one could bring those fights to South Dakota, which Johnston sees as an opportunity and Daugaard sees as the problem.
Daugaard adviser Kim Olson testified that the increase in fights would lead to more injuries and deaths, not less. Johnston responded by citing the numbers of deaths nationwide in existing activities such as rodeo and cheerleading.
The governor also worries members of the fight commission could be personally vulnerable to legal action for their decisions. Johnston suggested allowing unregulated fights to continue without a commission could itself pose legal risks to the state.
But it was the governor’s decision to not appoint members of the Legislature’s 2009 boxing commission that drew most lawmakers’ ire.
They not only went against the governor’s wishes in passing the bill, but they amended it to weaken Daugaard’s authority over the commission.
The original proposal let Daugaard appoint the five members of the South Dakota Athletic Commission. But Brown’s amendment gave Daugaard only one appointment, giving the other four to legislative leaders.
Brown said it was proposed “in order to prevent perhaps a repeat of the last four years.”
Daugaard fired back when told of the rebuke.
“I would be very happy if the Legislature would amend that legislation to give themselves complete authority to appoint that commission,” the governor said.
Many of the highest ranking leaders in the Legislature voted for the commission or expressed support for it, including Senate Majority Leader Russell Olson, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tim Rave, Senate majority whips Dan Lederman and Larry Rhoden, Senate Minority Leader Jason Frerichs and House Minority Leader Bernie Hunhoff. Brown is the president pro tempore of the Senate.
“Quite frankly I was quite frustrated at the answer taken by the former governor and our current governor,” said Rhoden, R-Union Center. “I think this was an appropriate action.”
Creating a commission to oversee boxing has been a long pet project of Rep. Dean Schremmp, D-Lantry. Schremmp, who has been involved in amateur boxing for around 50 years, led the charge to create the 2009 commission.
He’s not the only legislator with ties to fighting. Yankton Sen. Jean Hunhoff’s son Paul is making his debut this weekend in a Fargo mixed martial arts fight. Hunhoff was gone Friday, but Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, her brother-in-law, testified in favor of the bill.
If the bill overcomes an anticipated veto and becomes law, mixed martial arts could come to South Dakota in a big way. Johnston and Spearfish gym owner Mike Kilmer said Ultimate Fighting Championship has been interested in scheduling a competition — possibly one of its biggest ever — at the Sturgis Rally, but has backed off because of the lack of a fight commission.