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.”)

Daugaard to call legislative special session in June (updated)

Gov. Dennis Daugaard will call a special session of the South Dakota Legislature late next month to deal with a $10 million cost overrun in the construction of a new state veterans home in Hot Springs.

Lawmakers had appropriated $41 million in state and federal funds for the project earlier this year — but the lowest bid for the project was “considerably above projections,” Daugaard wrote in a Wednesday letter to legislators announcing the session. The total cost overrun was about 25 percent of the project’s initial budget.

The governor will be asking the Legislature to appropriate $14 to $20 million in surplus money from the current fiscal year to pay the extra veterans home costs instead of letting that money go into reserves.

"Needless to say, I am very disappointed with our architect," Daugaard wrote to lawmakers. "My priority is to build a durable, quality facility for our veterans – they deserve nothing less. I do not believe that we can cut $10 million from our plans and still build the facility that we need."

The revised budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which ends June 30, will have about $7 to $10 million in extra revenue and about $7 to $10 million in lower-than-normal expenses, according to new projections.

That’s the second year in a row the state budget has run millions of dollars in surplus, as Daugaard has encouraged legislators to be cautious about predicting new budget growth.

Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton and the Democratic leader in the state House, predicted the extra money would have broad support in both parties.

“I don’t think there’s anything political about it at all,” Hunhoff said. “We need to get this thing built.”

House Majority Leader David Lust, R-Rapid City, agreed.

“I don’t expect any controversy whatsoever,” Lust said. “When this first came through, the project and the funding, it was unanimous. I don’t expect this will change based on the increased costs.”

Hunhoff said the cost overrun was “disappointing” and that lawmakers would be sure to ask questions about where it came from and the source of the money, but predicted “broad support” in the end.

He also said Democrats would be unlikely to try to use the special session to raise other issues aside from the veterans home.

Lust said calling a special session will cost the state around $30,000. Daugaard tried to find ways to resolve the issue without calling a special session, Lust said, but ultimately had to call the Legislature back to Pierre.

The special session will be the second special session of Daugaard’s tenure as governor and the first not to be pre-planned. The Legislature convened in late 2011 to approve new legislative districts, a meeting added to its calendar long in advance.

In his letter, Daugaard predicted the special session would last a single day. He’s working with legislative leaders to pick a specific date in late June for the session.

How long will the harmony last?

In case you missed it on Sunday, I wrote about how so far this year, lawmakers seem to be getting along.

There was division (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of people disagreeing about whether they’re agreeing) about whether this represented a sea change in the Legislature or just the usual passing good feelings at the start of a legislative session.

Certainly things won’t stay cheery and conflict-free forever, but could the tenor of the inevitable disagreements and fights be less divisive than the past?

Advocates for this position cite a number of factors:

  • more bipartisan agreement on key issues, notably the generally praised criminal justice initiative in place of more controversial budget cuts and education reform proposals as the centerpiece of the gubernatorial agenda
  • a message from voters upset at bickering in Washington, D.C.
  • just the right amount of money — not so much that lawmakers are fighting over which priorities to fund, but not so little that they’re facing unpleasant budget cuts
  • leadership teams in both parties that are familiar with each other and can get along even when they disagree

Arguments against? Human nature and history. These are people with strongly held, differing positions on the issues, from very different backgrounds, playing for keeps in a heated political climate.

What do you think?

Tags: Legislature

The Legislature begins

Today, the previews end and the lawmaking starts.

Well, the lawmaking probably actually only starts in earnest tomorrow. Today two significant things will happen:

  • lawmakers will elect their official leaders, such as Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate. These decisions have been made in advance, but the Speaker vote in particular could be interesting. Brian Gosch will almost certainly be the next Speaker, but will dissident Republicans speak or vote against him in what’s usually a litmus test of party-line support?
  • Gov. Dennis Daugaard will give his State of the State address, laying out the condition of the state and setting out some priorities. Spoiler: There will be a lot of comparisons to neighboring states, and South Dakota will come out ahead. Read a preview here, and learn more about his policy centerpiece, the criminal justice initiative, here.

Also, each day in the session, I’ll be recording a video interview with a lawmaker, lobbyist or official, talking about an issue of the day. (Perhaps by the 38th video I’ll finally be semi-comfortable in front of the cameras.) The first, a legislative preview with Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, is available to watch here.

Was this news?

My story in this morning’s Argus Leader took a look at a lawmaker’s plan to bring a bill making it easier for families to opt out of mandatory vaccinations.

For some people, this story is highly questionable from the start. It’s dealing with a bill that hasn’t yet been introduced. Even though Sen.-elect Jeff Monroe SAYS he’ll introduce his bill, he’s under no obligation to do so, and could end up backing off. So why write about a bill so early?

On top of that, the opposition to this bill is fierce. Two similar bills got demolished last year, and even Monroe said up front he expects his bill to be defeated. Why waste newsprint on a story about a bill that’s likely to die in its first committee hearing?

Both of those are valid complaints, and I get why some journalists shy away from this kind of bill preview story. But I think stories like this one serve several purposes.

First, the issue of vaccines is one that affects lots of readers — everyone with kids has to go through getting them vaccinated, even if a much smaller percentage of the population feels very strongly about it. (The same applies to speeding tickets; just about everybody speeds, at least occasionally.)

Second, there is a subset of the population, on both sides, who feels very strongly about this issue. Anti-vaccine activists and public health experts all feel the question of vaccines is highly important.

So even though this bill is unlikely to become law, it’s covering an issue with a lot of reader interest. Moreover, it’s covering an issue that’s not going to go away even if the South Dakota Legislature kills Monroe’s bill. A newspaper story that informs readers about an ongoing public policy debate, through the hook of a planned bill, serves a real purpose for readers.

Finally, I would question the binary of “news” and “not news.” Some stories are more important and newsworthy than others, and as articulated above I believe stories like this one are newsworthy. The arguments against it still hold weight, though, which means that other stories without those drawbacks would be better worth my time and effort as a reporter.

But the period immediately before and after Christmas is also one of the slowest news periods of the year. Lots of people are on vacation. The big news in state politics is the imminent state legislative session, and giving readers a preview of upcoming controversial issues the state legislature will confront is definitely worth some ink.

(I would also point out the difference between being spun by lawmakers into giving them free press, and what I’ve done the past few weeks, which is call up legislators and talk to them about — and sometimes persuade them to reveal — issues they may bring to the upcoming session, then picking the most interesting issues they mention and turn each into a well-sourced story.)

So was a probably-doomed vaccine bill news? I think so. You may disagree. But that’s one of the benefits of the print media — unlike broadcast journalism, where you have to sit through all the inane stories in sequence to hear the ones you care about, print journalism is inherently disaggregated, and you can read only what you care about.

If you do care, my vaccine story can be read here.

Tags: Legislature

Hickey and public vetting of legislation

Rep. Steve Hickey is “80 percent likely” to bring back his failed bill from last year which put speeding back on the points system, where repeat offenders can lose their license.

That’s my story right now at argusleader.com, a preview of a fuller look online tomorrow.

There’s something else semi-notable about it: Hickey, the sponsor, discussed it (and several other bills he’s drafting) in detail, even though the bills have yet to be formalized and submitted.

Not all lawmakers do that. Every December I call around to various legislators and ask them what they’re working on. Some, like Hickey, are happy to share. Others say they don’t have any bills they “can disclose at this point.” They hold their ideas close to their vest until finally making them public.

Obviously lawmakers who follow Hickey’s approach make my life easier, so I selfishly cheer them. But I also think airing bills out for public discussion early on lets to better bills and arguably improves their chances of passage.

Releasing bill ideas early lets more people weigh in with ideas and opinions, catching flaws and finding improvements. It lets you build up a public constituency for a bill and eliminates any objections people might have from a process standpoint, that the bill was being rushed through or that all sides weren’t given a chance to provide input.

Of course, if a bill is going to be unpopular, releasing it at the last possible minute might be the best strategy. But most bills have a month or more of time in the legislative hopper between their introduction and when they’re passed and signed into law, which is usually plenty of time for a public backlash to develop.

As Hickey wrote in an email to the full House with regards to his proposal to let a finite number of additional armed officials into schools:

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a reporter* about how I like it when legislators toss their bill ideas out in the public forum and to solicit public feedback which is really helpful in discerning if and how to proceed with a bill. So, I did that with a school marshall bill idea the other day. I also spoke with some superintendents, sheriffs and the AG is looking at my ideas as well.

This is a hot enough potato I thought to solicit your feedback as well. If you have any thoughts please email or call me.

Hickey’s not the only lawmaker who talks about bills in this preliminary stage — I’ve talked to a half dozen in the past week — but it’ll be interesting to see how public vetting of a bill actually impacts its success.

*me

The first bills of 2013

The Legislative Research Council has filed the first bills for next year’s legislative session. So far they come from summer studies looking at oil and gas exploration and higher education. Pride of place in the House, HB1001, would “require mineral developers to give notice to surface owners before entering the land.” The first Senate bill, SB1, would “revise the provisions regarding plugging and performance bonds for oil and gas wells and to repeal the supplemental restoration bond requirement.”

View the 11 bills submitted so far here.

Tags: Legislature

Committee assignments for the next Legislature

The House and Senate committees, and committee chairs, are now online for the next session of the South Dakota Legislature. You can view them at the links above, or check them out in spreadsheet form.

Tags: Legislature

Who’s polling the legislative session?

A Twitter user is reporting she was polled yesterday about the upcoming South Dakota legislative session.

According to user @book3mom, the call lasted about five minutes, was conducted by a live interviewer who was from out of state (key tell: they mispronounced “Pierre”) and didn’t include any disclaimer about who conducted the poll.

Among the things she reports being asked:

  • how she ranked the importance of various social and fiscal issues for the legislative session
  • her opinion of President Barack Obama, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Secretary of State Jason Gant, the state Democratic and Republican parties, and the tea party movement
  • whether South Dakota should let the federal government run its health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act (but not whether South Dakota should expand Medicaid)
  • whether she thought Pierre too partisan
  • if she liked Nebraska’s system of nonpartisan legislative elections

The poll came from 503-575-7964 and came up as “Bernett R” on caller ID. A quick web search determines that number is tied to Bernett Research, a call center firm; that doesn’t identify who hired Bernett to conduct the poll.

Does anyone have any insight into who’s behind this?

The South Dakota House, still divided

You know, for a guy many Republicans see as a dishonest, slime-peddling puppetmaster, Ben Nesselhuf sure gets his hands on a lot of internal GOP documents.

This morning, the South Dakota Democratic Party released a letter Rep. Lance Russell has apparently been circulating to fellow Republican legislators and candidates.

In the letter, Russell — who was banned from the House GOP caucus last year, along with Rep. Stace Nelson — claims he’s been excluded from emails sent among Republican legislators, including one to set the date of the post-election leadership vote.

Perhaps more interestingly, Russell, in the letter, makes explicit what had been an open secret around Pierre: some of the rules used by the majority party to keep control of the debate in the Legislature. (I’m trying to use clinical, non-loaded language to describe these organizational tactics; I intend no judgment over whether these tactics are good or not good.)

Specifically, Russell says the House GOP:

  • calls only on designated members to speak during key debates, including the budget bill. (This is the most obvious of the tactics he talks about; there’s an obvious pageantry to the budget debates, which is not unwelcome for many observers since it helps get the last day of the session done at a reasonable hour.)
  • holds pre-committee meetings to decide how to vote on certain bills. This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched a party-line committee vote in Pierre.
  • apparently behaves pettily and refers to members as “he who shall not be named” in meetings. Dumbledore would not approve.

Russell details these tactics as part of a call for their abolition.

Read his letter below:

Lance Russell letter

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