Last night, as the House’s Crossover Day debate ticked past 9 p.m., legislators moved on to what was expected to be the easy, uncontroversial part of the agenda — the “vehicle” bills that didn’t do anything.
The first was tabled. The second, which as written declares solely that “Education in South Dakota is hereby impacted,” came up for debate and Rep. Justin Cronin, R-Gettysburg, asked the House to pass it.
Why pass a meaningless bill? It’s a response to the strict calendar guidelines of the Legislature, which allow bills to be freely introduced only through the 14th legislative day. Passing an empty bill gives lawmakers a “vehicle” or “carcass” that they can keep alive and amend should issues arise after that deadline.
It’s a longstanding tradition.
It’s also a longstanding tradition that Rep. Stace Nelson doesn’t like.
Instead of the quick, uncontentious passage many people expected, Nelson rose to urge opposition to House Bill 1137. Here’s part of his speech, roughly transcribed:
Let’s be frank here: there’s nothing in this bill. I’m one of those that laughs in very sour appreciation of the comments by the former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, telling people they have to pass a 2,000-some page bill to find out what’s actually in it. What you’re being told today is you have to pass this bill with nothing in it to find out what’s going to be in it.
We’re going to hear all these things, ‘well, it’s always been done that way’ and ‘this is the way we’ve got to do it’ and ‘oh my goodness, the sun’s not going to come out tomorrow,’ but folks, I’m hear to tell you, we have proper procedures for doing this. Now this illustrious body can suspend the rules at any given time and declare that the moon is made out of orange cheese. We can surely suspend the rules to put in a bill at a later date that deals with circumstances that come up. We have rules for a reason. The appearance of passing a bill with nothing in it — I beg of you, imagine the questions by constituents when you get asked solely, what was that bill with nothing in it?
…This is something that’s been done in the past. As a freshman, you take a look and go ‘huh? You’re kidding me.’ As a legislator now who’s been here for several years, I’m a little bit more apprehensive about passing something with nothing in it, that we’re going to trust the Senate to put something in.
Cronin then rose to rebut Nelson’s complaints:
House Bill 1137 will be assigned to a committee in the Senate, tomorrow.
I’m putting the people and the public in the state of South Dakota on notice: come to Pierre when these two bills are up in committee to voice your concerns. Then they’ll have a full hearing on the House floor when they pass out of committee.
Then we’ll have a conference committee on them, or at least a chance to have a conference committee on them.
Everyone knows that there will be something in these bills that has to do with education, otherwise we won’t use it. They will have not only two hearings, but three. We can decide not to agree when it comes from the Senate, and they can do the same.
Nelson’s proposed alternative was that the House can suspend the rules to introduce new bills, something that requires a two-thirds majority to do.
The House then approved HB 1137 61-8. Voting no were Nelson and Reps. Campbell, Feinstein, Greenfield, Kaiser, Kopp, Lust, and Russell.
That’s six outspoken conservatives, plus a Democrat and, for some reason, House Majority Leader David Lust, who I know has no philosophical objection to vehicle bills because he uses them himself on a regular basis.
UPDATE: Wally, in the comments, points out the procedurally savvy reason why Lust voted no: “so he would be appointed to a conference committee, if necessary, representing the no votes. Smart move on his part.”
After the vote, Nelson gave notice of his intent to lodge an objection to the bill under Joint Rule 1-10:
Any two members of a house may dissent or protest in respectful language against any act or resolution which they think injurious to the public or to any individual and have the reason for their dissent or protest entered upon the journal.
Do you agree with Nelson that there’s something wrong about passing vehicle bills? Or is Cronin right that this is innocuous and that the public will get a chance to weigh in on the Senate side, and if something passes again before the House acts to concur, amend or reject the bill?
I don’t have a position on this question, though I would suggest that however seriously you view this problem, a bigger issue than vehicle bills is probably hoghousing, the process of amending a bill entirely, so that it no longer resembles its original form. There’s a definite legislative use for hoghousing, but there’s also the potential to short-circuit hearings on hoghoused bills if the hoghouse isn’t made public until the day of the hearing. When the hoghouse comes late in the session, after the bill is in its second house, this can mean members of the public who miss the hearing where the bill is amended may never get a chance to testify on the amended bill.
Whether or not that is a problem is also up to each individual person to decide; as a reporter, I’m less affected by this than most since I’m usually at the hearing and sometimes can get wind of a hoghouse attempt beforehand.
But if lawmakers do see this as a problem, a simple fix would be a rule preventing final action on a hoghoused bill the same day it was hoghoused. That is, if you hoghouse a bill, you then have to defer passage for at least another day. (This would then move up the deadline to hoghouse bills one day before the existing deadlines for bills to pass committees, which has its own downfalls given the Legislature’s short calendar — downfalls that may or may not outweigh any possible problem this solves.)