Here’s my story for tomorrow’s paper, taking a look at whether the texting ban this year will follow past years and go down to defeat in the House, or if it will get the needed votes and become law. I couldn’t track down all the members of the House Judiciary Committee today, but a majority for passage definitely seems possible — six members, one short of a majority, have either voted for a ban in the past or expressed support for it this year; I count four who have voted against bans or expressed opposition; the other three (Erickson, Johns and Stevens, all new legislators) could control the balance.
After passing through the South Dakota Senate with little opposition, a proposed statewide ban on texting while driving appeared before its first House committee — and was promptly killed.
That’s not the story this year, where a ban on texting is still alive — so far. But it’s what happened two years ago with a similar attempt. The House also defeated texting bans in 2010 and 2012. Will 2013’s proposed ban meet the same fate as its House hearing nears?
Rep. Charlie Hoffman, R-Eureka, is hoping it won’t. As the prime sponsor of the texting ban in the House, he’s trying to round up support, and believes the votes are there.
Speculating Thursday morning about whether the ban would be assigned to the Judiciary Committee, Hoffman said if it went there “it will come out with a majority vote, a strong majority.”
Several hours later, House Speaker Brian Gosch assigned it to the Judiciary Committee.
But passage might not be so easy as Hoffman predicts. Gosch himself has voted against several past texting bans, and he’s the chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Gosch said Thursday he’s still studying the specifics of the bill, and has particular questions about voice-controlled text message technology — which is exempt from the proposed ban.
Other members of the committee plan to vote against the ban, Senate Bill 142.
“I’ve generally been opposed to texting while driving bans,” said Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids. “There’s a multitude of distractions. Rather than singling one out, I would be more inclined to support our existing distracted driving laws, leaving those as-is, and not ratcheting up penalties on one distraction in particular.”
Rep. Don Kopp, R-Rapid City, agreed.
“We have a law on the books already for impaired driving, etc., that I think would be sufficient,” Kopp said. “A lot of other legislators in the committee probably aren’t going to support the ban, for that reason.”
Whether that “a lot” is a majority is yet to be determined. Six members of the committee — one short of a majority — either have declared their support for the texting ban or have voted for one in the past.
Hoffman is one of those committee members. So is Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, who said the measure “sounds like a pretty good bill.”
Democratic Reps. Kevin Killer, Peggy Gibson and Marc Feinstein all voted for a texting ban in 2010, as did Republican Rep. Dean Wink.
If none of those lawmakers change their minds, only one of the other eight members of the committee would have to vote yes to send the bill to the full House.
Gosch, Kopp and Rep. Melissa Magstadt have all voted against texting bans in the past, combined with Hansen’s planned opposition. If none of them change their positions, the opponents have a base of four votes and would need three more to kill the ban.
Some have yet to make up their mind. Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, said he’s still studying the bill.
Many members of the committee are new to the Legislature. Stevens and Hajek are in their first years, as are Reps. Christine Erickson and Timothy Johns.
No date has yet been set for the hearing on the texting ban before the House Judiciary Committee.
When it does happen, proponents will likely bring a crowd of supporters to testify in favor. The Senate hearing last week had 17 proponents, including lawmakers, law enforcement, businesses, cities, victims of crashes caused by texting while driving and the driver in such an accident.
But that same array of supporters also testified for the bans in 2012 and 2011, and both times the House committee killed it.
Hoffman is hopeful that a new message and a changing political climate will bring more success this year.
He said more fatal accidents in which texting was at fault, have raised awareness, and said local bans adopted by cities such as Sioux Falls and Huron will let him make the case for having the same law across the state. The proposed texting ban would override all local bans on texting while driving.
Hansen didn’t buy the argument about trying to avoid a patchwork of different texting laws.
“If you’re opposed to the ban in general, I would rather it be banned in select cities than statewide,” Hansen said.
Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, took the lead promoting the texting ban in the Senate. Having seen past bans fail, he’s not making any predictions.
“I’ve given up a long time ago trying to predict what one of the legislative bodies is going to do,” Vehle said. “I’m always hopeful that you can break a pattern, especially in this case. But that’s up to those House members.”