Earlier today, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 5-4 to pass House Speaker Brian Gosch’s version of a statewide ban on texting while driving. Some longtime supporters of texting bans oppose Gosch’s measure because it’s a “secondary offense” — which means drivers can’t be pulled over for it, only given an add-on ticket for another offense — and because it overrides the stronger texting bans a number of South Dakota cities pass.
But ultimately it’s no surprise that Gosch’s bill is advancing while Vehle’s heads into hostile territory tomorrow in the House Transportation Committee. In this political battle, Gosch holds all the cards.
Ultimately it comes down to this: Gosch doesn’t care very much about banning texting while driving. He’s opposed bans for years, arguing they don’t do much good and aren’t enforceable. He only came on board this year when he melded a texting ban to language overriding local texting bans. That override is where Gosch is passionate — he believes cities are already exceeding their legal authority by passing texting bans and wants to make that explicit.
In contrast, traditional texting ban supporters like Mike Vehle and Craig Tieszen want very much to ban texting while driving, which they believe is a scourge leading to accidents and deaths across South Dakota. So if the result of this legislative dispute is another year of no statewide ban, that’s a defeat for them.
Because the status quo is more acceptable to Gosch than it is to Vehle and Tieszen, he’s more willing to see both bills die — the likely outcome if the two chambers can’t make an agreement. So Gosch has no incentive to make any concessions from his position. He either gets what he wants, or things stay the same — neither one a loss.
Underpinning this power is Gosch’s support in the House, which has traditionally resisted texting bans. By being able to deliver a House majority for his statewide ban this year, and comfortable in the existence of a majority to defeat any versions he dislikes, Gosch can negotiate from a position of strength.
Vehle’s position of weakness has been clear for weeks. Instead of sticking to his guns and getting the Senate to pass his ideal texting ban — where police can pull people over for texting and the penalty is stronger — Vehle preemptively watered down his bill with elements of Gosch’s proposal. Today he pronounced himself undecided whether Gosch’s bill would be better or worse than the status quo.
Presuming the House sticks to its guns and defeats any alternative to Gosch’s bill, there are two potential outcomes here: either the Senate can acquiesce to Gosch’s version and pass it, or it can amend it and set up a conference committee fight. But as Speaker of the House Gosch would appoint all the House members of the conference committee. Since bills before a six-member conference committee need support from at least two of the three members from each House, Gosch would be able to effectively block any proposal he doesn’t like. With, as stated above, no incentive for Gosch to compromise, that would give Vehle two choices: surrender, or kill the bill.
The real strategic mistake on the part of texting ban supporters was not launching an initiated measure years ago. They cite polling showing overwhelming popular support for texting bans, but kept coming back year after year to bash their heads against the immovable opposition in the House. Now they’re likely to get what they wanted — a statewide texting ban — but in a form they abhor.