The strength of the legislature

My story in today’s paper looked at the efforts of some of the current legislative leaders to try to strengthen the South Dakota Legislature vis-a-vis the executive branch.

As noted deep in the story, this isn’t new — there was another push a decade ago to strengthen the Legislature’s capacity, which followed on other, prior efforts, none of which had a strong, lasting effect.

The latest round is looking at changes that even supporters see primarily as nudges in the right direction — a legislative planning committee, hiring a few more staff — rather than radical changes.

The story looks at some of the bigger factors contributing to why South Dakota is generally seen as having a weak Legislature (everyone I talked to, including Democrats, Republican leaders, Republican dissidents, outside experts and — most hesitatingly — Gov. Dennis Daugaard, agreed on that point).

There’s two general categories of reasons. One is structural or institutional: things like term limits, funding and staffing levels. The other is attitudinal — places where lawmakers COULD be more combative or assertive but choose not to.

One of the bigger issues people raised turned out to be the budget, which South Dakota governors draft, propose, and largely get their way on. Jim Fry, the former director of the LRC, said that “the ability to control the purse strings in that way really does have a remarkable effect on how a legislative session will shape up.”

In some states, and in South Dakota in the past, legislatures wrote their own budgets. With such a small staff, leaders in South Dakota don’t think they could do that today even if they wanted to — though there has been some discussion about the subject.

Finally, there’s the question about whether a stronger legislature is even something voters want. Many voters are perhaps content with a strong executive branch that takes the lead, or would be fine with a stronger legislature but not with the institutional changes that might create that stronger body.

(An aside: the fact that South Dakota has a “weak” Legislature doesn’t mean the Legislature never has its own ideas, never gets its way, and never stands up to the governor. All of those things happen. It’s a matter of how much. Compared to other states, South Dakota’s governors get their way a large proportion of the time. “Every year there are very interesting exceptions… but they’re always exceptions, and they’re seldom if ever on the really big issues,” said Rep. Bernie Hunhoff. “Even a good child will kick back once in a while.”)