From Monday: Bill would authorize self-driving cars

In case readers missed it, on Monday, I wrote about a bill being sponsored by Rep. Isaac Latterell and Sen. Dan Lederman dealing with a high-tech subject: self-driving cars.

Here’s that story:

Self-driving cars have been the stuff of science fiction — but if some lawmakers get their way, they could soon be heading to South Dakota.

With companies like Google and General Motors developing autonomous vehicles, California, Michigan and other states have passed laws to give the self-driving cars access to the road. Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Sioux Falls, wants South Dakota to join them.

"I’ve seen a lot of different states try to encourage driverless car innovation," said Latterell. "We want to be one of the states that’s leading in technology. I think this is another way we can attract car manufacturers who are trying to make advances in this area to come to South Dakota."

His measure, Senate Bill 139, would allow autonomous cars onto South Dakota highways — but with plenty of restrictions. They’d be allowed only for research and testing purposes, not recreational use. The cars would have to have an operator capable of taking control of the car at any moment, if the sensors or computerized guidance systems failed. And the company would have to post a $5 million bond in case anything went wrong.

"There’s a real tension between fostering innovation… and on the other hand protecting public safety," said Bryant Walker Smith, who teaches and studies the legal aspects of automation at Stanford University. "Thirty thousand people die on U.S. roads every year, largely through human error, but you can imagine the consequences of an errant robot, both in terms of lives and the technologies involved."

Latterell and other enthusiasts, such as Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, believe people will grow more comfortable with the idea of a car driving itself as they get more familiar.

"Initially, there are going to be some knee-jerk reactions against the bill, because to think of a car driving itself seems so foreign," said Lederman. "It is a very different idea. But industries have put hundreds of thousands of miles on autonomous cars without any accidents in other states like California."

The self-driving car technology is in a curious state. Commercially available cars can already monitor and control, to varying degrees, a car’s speed and direction. But the dream of a car that can function as a chauffeur, going from one place to another while its owner naps in the back, isn’t here yet.

"The vision of a fully self-driving car has been 20 years away ever since the 1930s," said Smith. "Now the good news is that it’s coming in 10 years."

Though fully automated cars are largely the province of major corporations, some universities and smaller companies are also working on the subject — even here in South Dakota.

"We don’t build automobiles. Our research is to apply autonomy to any vehicle," said Jeff McGough, director of the computational sciences and robotics program at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.

McGough said students and professors are currently working on building robotic vehicles off-roads, partly because of legal issues with taking autonomous cars onto public roads. Instead, they drive their vehicles on private land. But he said he knows students who would love to retrofit cars with self-driving capabilities if it were legal.

"I don’t know of any private land that has, say, interstate," McGough said. "Having the laws in place where we could do research, that would be great."

But McGough said Latterell’s bill might not help student researchers. The requirement for a $5 million bond, in particular, would probably be too great a barrier for a group of students to overcome.

Latterell and Lederman said they haven’t had any conversations with autonomous car manufacturers, but hope they’ll be intrigued if South Dakota joins Nevada, California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, D.C. in passing laws governing self-driving cars.

But different states have taken different approaches to autonomous vehicles, and some meet with more support from the car makers than others.

Lederman and Latterell “certainly will hear from some of the industry participants, but it won’t necessarily be an enthusiastic embrace of the language,” said Smith.

In some states, developers of self-driving vehicles have actually opposed legislation to give them access to the roads with conditions. That’s in part because some of the companies don’t think they need the laws.

"It’s probably already legal for an auto manufacturer to take one of their vehicles, duly licensed in South Dakota… and under the careful supervision of a test driver, operate it on a public road," Smith said.

But “probably legal” doesn’t provide the certainty companies are looking for, so they have welcomed legislation specifically legalizing it — except where lawmakers have proposed too many restrictions.

"Some people might view this as a bill that expands the legality of the activity," Smith said of Latterell’s bill. "It provides certainty, but it may in fact contract the legality of the activity."

A representative of Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Latterell and others noted that whatever shortcomings self-driving cars have, so do human drivers, who cause plenty of accidents by getting distracted or not paying enough attention.

"The autonomous vehicles never stop paying attention to everything," Latterell said.

Smith echoed that concern.

"People should be much more worried about human drivers than they actually are," he said.

But whatever effect South Dakota’s law has, it will likely get people thinking seriously about a technology that could be arriving on the market very soon.

"Starting the discussion is good for the state," Latterell said.

Senate Bill 139 has been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Bill would ban ‘dismemberment’ abortions

South Dakota should ban a method of abortion commonly used in the second trimester of pregnancies because of its “gruesome” nature, 17 South Dakota legislators say.

A newly introduced bill would make it a felony to perform any abortion in which the fetus, while still living, is dismembered — with a possible maximum penalty of life in prison.

"It just makes clear that a certain procedure that is totally horrific and gruesome to any reasonable person would not be an acceptable method of ending a child’s life, and that is to dismember or decapitate a living, unborn child," said Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea, the bill’s prime sponsor.

Abortion rights supporters oppose the legislation as an “inflammatory” restriction.

"Even after South Dakota voters rejected efforts to ban abortion in 2006 and again in 2008, some legislators continue to pile restriction after restriction on a woman’s ability to make her own health care decisions," said South Dakota Campaign for Health Families, an abortion rights group, in a statement. "Politicians in the South Dakota legislature are intent on continuing to make it even more difficult for a woman to access reproductive health care."

Some 85 to 90 percent of abortions happen during the first trimester. They typically involve either the fetus being sucked out with a vacuum, or are medicinally induced.

Most of the remaining abortions happen in the second trimester, where the most common method involves the surgical removal of the fetus.

During this surgical process, the fetus is often torn apart removing it from the uterus. In some cases, doctors kill the fetus with an injection prior to removing it from the uterus, while others believe “it adds risk with little or no medical benefit” and perform the procedure on a living fetus, according to a 2003 Supreme Court ruling by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Latterell’s bill, House Bill 1241, would have no impact on abortions in which the fetus was killed prior to being dismembered, he said.

The bill would make it a Class 2 felony, with a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, to perform an abortion in which a living fetus was dismembered. If that dismemberment involved separating the fetus’s skull from the spine, it would be a Class B felony, with a maximum penalty of life in prison.

HB1241 has not yet been assigned to a committee or scheduled for a hearing.

A few photos of last night’s legislative basketball game, which raised a bunch of money for charity. Rumor has it the Senate pulled out a victory 112-108 of the House side. If I get more information about the money raised for Kids Voting South Dakota I’ll add this here.  The game raised $12,390 for Kids Voting South Dakota.

Round three for fight commission bill Monday as Hickey readies counter-punch

A proposal to regulate fighting sports in South Dakota has a key hearing Monday as opponents prepare to try to derail the most controversial part of the plan.

Sen. Mark Johnston, R-Sioux Falls, and others support creating a South Dakota Athletic Commission, which would regulate sports such as boxing, kick-boxing and mixed martial arts. South Dakota currently has no such commission, meaning those events either avoid the state or happen without oversight.

The result, Johnston argues, is people getting hurt or even killed fighting in unsanctioned bouts. The athletic commission created in Senate Bill 84 would have the power to create rules, such as requiring medical testing and banning fighters who’ve suffered blows to the head.

But Gov. Dennis Daugaard and others say the athletic commission would legitimize these violent sports and lead to more, not fewer, people getting hurt.

“I’m offended that the state would legitimize cage-fighting and the bloody violence that those kinds of spectacles create,” Daugaard said in January. “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.”

Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, feels the same way. When SB 84 comes up for a hearing at 10 a.m. Monday, he plans to offer an amendment he sees as a compromise — creating the athletic commission, but limiting it to sports such as boxing and traditional martial arts such as karate and judo. Mixed martial arts would be banned in South Dakota.

“The conversation on violence in society needs to start somewhere. Why not with our most violent entertainment, and that’s mixed martial arts,” said Hickey. “There’s a reason two governors have been reticent to appoint a commission: it’s because they agree with me that elbowing a guy in the head, kneeing him in the face, is beyond where we need to go.”

Hickey compared violent sports to smoking and pornography and said in all three cases, society needs to draw a line.

“With smoking we drew a line at pot, and with adult entertainment we’ve drawn it at child porn,” Hickey said. “I say that mixed martial arts is the child porn of sports.”

The supporters of the athletic commission proposal aren’t getting on board with Hickey’s alternative. They defended mixed martial arts from Hickey’s characterization of it as unusually brutal.

The supporters of the athletic commission proposal aren’t getting on board with Hickey’s alternative. They defended mixed martial arts from Hickey’s characterization of it as unusually brutal.

“I think once we get the rules in place it’s going to be as safe as a lot of the other sports we have nowadays,” said Rep. Dean Schrempp, D-Lantry. “But it has to be regulated.”

Johnston said he appreciates Hickey’s “societal concerns” but disagrees with his judgment.

“The sport of mixed martial arts is not cage-fighting. If he were really concerned about cage-fighting, he should support the bill in its current form because that’s really what we’re trying to stop,” Johnston said. “Mixed martial arts is just that: it’s an art. It’s a combination of boxing, kickboxing and wrestling.”

Schrempp doubts banning mixed martial arts would stamp it out, despite the felony penalties for organizing or participating in those events in Hickey’s amendment.

“It’s going to go on anyway whether we try to stop it or not,” Schrempp said. “Even if he gets an amendment on it, it’ll be like it is now — people will still have them.”

If Hickey’s amendment were adopted, it could save SB 84 from an anticipated veto.

“It looks like something the governor could support,” said Tony Venhuizen, a senior adviser to Daugaard, about Hickey’s amendment.

Supporters aren’t worried. They believe they have the votes to pass the bill and override any veto. It passed the Senate with 29 votes, above the 24 needed to override a veto. Schrempp said he’s confident the support in the House will also be over the two-thirds threshold.

Lawmakers at Saturday’s legislative forum in Sioux Falls were split on the matter. Several agreed with Hickey that mixed martial arts is beyond the pale.

“I don’t think this is a healthy thing we should be encouraging,” said Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea.

Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, said she had clashed with mixed martial arts in past years when it went on at the Minnehaha County fairgrounds.

“Why in the world would we ever think this is entertainment?” said Hajek said.

But Rep. Herman Otten, R-Tea, said he had mixed feelings. He disapproves of mixed martial arts and doesn’t let his son watch it, but said that might be a decision best left up to parents.

(This post has been updated to expand a quotation.)

No consensus on key subjects at Sioux Falls forum

There was little consensus on many of the highest profile issues of the 2013 Legislature at Saturday’s final Sioux Falls legislative coffee of the year.

On questions about Medicaid expansion, guns in schools, abortion and texting while driving, the 11 local lawmakers present demonstrated why those issues have been so controversial with collegial but consistent disagreement.

"This is an opportunity for us as a state to be in a leadership position and say, ‘We want to help these people who can’t help themselves,’" said Rep. Paula Hawks, D-Hartford, about expanding Medicaid eligibility to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty limit.

Sen. Ernie Otten, R-Tea, took a different tack.

"This has got absolutely nothing to do with not wanting people to have health care," Otten said. "It does have to do with affordability and making sure we keep our budget within our means."

The “school sentinels” bill to give districts the option of arming volunteer defenders was praised as common-sense and permissive — and blasted as a step in the wrong direction.

"We’re not talking about giving everyone guns," said Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls. "The conversation is what about the districts that can’t have a law enforcement officer. Is there another person that could be qualified to get in there? I’m in favor of giving the school district that option."

Rep. Marc Feinstein, D-Sioux Falls, worried that putting more guns in schools would lead to innocent students being shot if there were ever an incident, citing an incident in New York City last year where trained police officers shot bystanders while trying to take down a shooter.

A ban on texting while driving also drew both advocates and skeptics. Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, said the ban could create “a culture of kids who start driving, who realize you don’t text and drive.” Rep. Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, said he was having a hard time coming up with arguments “about why someone should text and drive.”

But Otten said the ban would be impossible to enforce, and Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea, suggested it was an example of government trying “to be everyone’s parents.”

A proposal to exclude weekends and holidays from South Dakota’s 72-hour pre-abortion waiting period inspired some of the morning’s sharpest language, with Feinstein quipping that “you don’t get pregnant just between 8 to 5 on weekdays” and Latterell concluding “unequivocally” that “Planned Parenthood does not care about women.”

Saturday’s legislative forum was sponsored by a range of groups including the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. It was the fourth and final of four Chamber-sponsored legislative forums this session, which has two more weeks remaining.

One-cent bets bill passes Legislature, heads to governor

The cost of bets in South Dakota video lottery machines may be about to go down, though lawmakers are divided about whether the real cost to gamblers will go up.

The South Dakota House on Thursday approved a new one-cent bet denominations for video lottery machines. With the Senate’s early approval, the proposal now heads to Gov. Dennis Daugaard for a signature or veto.

Gambling industry officials supported the bill, saying it would save them money because new games are produced with one-cent bets. Changing the programming to make the minimum bet five cents costs them time and money.

But many representatives voted against the proposal, saying it would make it easier for people to lose their money on video lottery.

“If I were designing these machines, I would find a way to make them more addictive, more fun and more likely to have you enjoy losing money,” said Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea, predicting the one-cent bets would accomplish just that.

Rep. Don Kopp, R-Rapid City, said the effect of the bill would be that “instead of making granny take five hours to spend her Social Security check, it’ll take her 15.”

While supporters touted the roughly $2 billion video lottery has generated for South Dakota since being instituted, some opponents said that was precisely the problem. Because that revenue came from gambler losses, Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, said he had to vote no.

“My conscience forbids me from gaining something, especially monetarily, from something designed for them to lose,” Craig said.

Supporters accused these critics of missing the point, and urged them to vote on the bill and not on the bigger issue of video lottery.

“What we’re trying to do here is keep the games fresh and entertaining,” said Rep. Dick Werner, R-Huron, and a former member of the state Lottery Commission.

The bill wouldn’t make things worse for gambling addicts, said Rep. Tim Rounds, R-Pierre.

“If this bill doesn’t pass today, people will still be losing their paychecks in these machines,” he said.

Also included in the bill, Senate Bill 52, is some legislative cleanup abolishing outdated language. 

After the debate, 39 representatives voted in favor of the one-cent bets, and 28 voted no. That’s over the simple majority the bill needed, sending it to Daugaard. The governor’s office has supported the bill as it has worked its way through the Legislature.

Homeschool scholarship bill fails by one vote

After around an hour of debate spread out over two days, efforts to make the Opportunity Scholarship easier for homeschooled students failed by a single vote.

House Bill 1128 received 35 yes votes and 35 no votes, one vote short of the 36 it needed to become law.

Currently, to receive the $5,000 Opportunity Scholarship, students need to take a broad range of classes and receive a 24 on their ACT test. Starting next year, students who don’t take those classes can still get the scholarship, but only if they receive a 28 on the ACT.

If HB 1128 became law, home-schooled students could qualify for the scholarship with a 24.

Supporters said that was only fair because homeschooled students can’t take those classes as students at formal schools.

"I think the situation as it exists now is inequitable," said Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Sioux Falls.

Opposed were people who said passing HB 1128 would create that inequity.

"If the choice is that they want to be eligible for this scholarship at a lower ACT score, their choice is to enroll in a public school," said Rep. Paula Hawks, D-Hartford.

Supporters plan to try again to pass the bill on Thursday.

Latterell’s address

Introducing himself at the House Local Government Committee hearing this morning, Rep. Isaac Latterell said something interesting: “I live in southern Sioux Falls.”

That’s interesting because on his page on the Legislative Research Council website, Latterell is listed as having a Tea address — specifically, a post office box there.

I asked him about the discrepancy. He said it reflected a recent move.

"I used to live near rural Tea out in the country," Latterell said. "I’ve told people in my campaign I moved to southern Sioux Falls, which is still in the district. That was something I clearly communicated during my campaign."

He moved, he said, because of a “bad roommate situation.”

Latterell said he’s updated his official voter registration.

But he said he maintains the PO box in Tea that’s listed as his official address.

"I still do business in Tea," said Latterell, a first-term Republican.

I went to last night’s “No Party Party” at the Icon Lounge in downtown Sioux Falls. It was an impressive group, a balanced mix of Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers. Organizers say there were around 200 people there, including 24 legislative candidates.

After an hour of mixing, each candidate was given up to 60 seconds to make their case, with the limitation that they couldn’t mention any political party. Anyone who mentioned “the D word” or “the R word” would get blasted with an air horn, as would anyone who went over the 60-second time limit.

None of them used the forbidden words, and the first 20 or so candidates to speak all came in under the time limit. I was despairing that we wouldn’t get the entertaining air horn blast. District 6 House candidate Isaac Latterell gamely stalled out his speech with filler and intentionally drew an air horn, but fortunately near the end, Sen. Phyllis Heineman got caught up in her paean to South Dakota’s good governance and got air horned. I caught the moment on camera, above.

I believe District 6 Senate candidate Rich Schriever, the last candidate to speak, also got a horn blast.

Candidates did get the last five seconds counted down via hand signals. Organizer Jolene Loetscher said if they put on another “No Party Party” in two years, they’ll probably give candidates no time warnings, in the interests of good fun.

Here’s the candidates who attended:

  • Kent Alberty, District 12 Senate
  • Angie Buhl, District 15 Senate
  • Christine Erickson, District 11 House
  • Marc Feinstein, District 14 House
  • Jenna Haggar, District 10 House
  • Anne Hajek, District 14 House
  • Phyllis Heineman, District 13 Senate
  • Mark Johnston, District 12 Senate
  • Brian Kaatz, District 14 Senate
  • Sam Khoroosi, District 13 Senate
  • Mike Knudson, District 12 House
  • Shantel Krebs, District 10 House
  • Isaac Latterell, District 6 House
  • Mark Mickelson, District 13 House
  • David Omdahl, District 11 Senate
  • Susan Randall, District 12 House
  • Deb Soholt, District 14 Senate
  • Darrell Solberg, District 11 House
  • Jim Stalzer, District 11 House
  • Paul Thompson, District 10 Senate
  • Jo Hausman, District 10 House
  • Rich Shriever, District 6 Senate
  • Larry Zikmund, District 14 House
  • Steve Hickey, District 9 House

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