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South Dakota GOP declares state of emergency to wipe out ethics reform

Voter-backed overhaul followed big-league scandals.

South Dakota House Majority Leader Lee Qualm (R) testifies Monday in support of repealing an ethics reform package. CREDIT: AP Photo/James Nord
South Dakota House Majority Leader Lee Qualm (R) testifies Monday in support of repealing an ethics reform package. CREDIT: AP Photo/James Nord

Just 10 weeks ago, South Dakota voters passed a slate of ethics reforms and campaign finance law overhauls by a slim majority. By the end of the day on Thursday, state Republican lawmakers will have canceled the whole package.

The Republicans, who outnumber Democrats roughly four-to-one in both houses of the legislature, are using emergency legislation to void the ethics reforms. The mechanism prevents voters from overruling the repeal with another ballot measure.

If voters’ decision were allowed to stand, South Dakotans would have an independent ethics board with subpoena power. Given a pair of recent high-profile corruption scandals in which former public officials in South Dakota had bilked taxpayers for years and then killed themselves after investigators caught on, the state had reason to seek a watchdog with sharper teeth and a longer leash.

The measure has many other moving parts that are more controversial, including a system for publicly financing elections which opponents particularly focused on during election season. The fight over the package made the small state “ground zero in the ideological war over money in politics,” the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) wrote in October.

Republicans lost that battle in November. Now they’re using extraordinary measures to override the voters.

The emergency package passed the House on Tuesday and is moving through a Senate committee on Wednesday, with a full floor vote in the upper chamber expected on Thursday. Once the GOP supermajorities finish up, state employees and lawmakers will be safe once again from independent investigations of public corruption in state government.

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The new ethics rules would also have restricted lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, set new limits for campaign contributions, and made it harder for former state officials to move into lobbying roles. A narrow majority of voters approved the reforms after months of heated back-and-forth between the state chapters of two national organizations with wildly divergent ideas about the effort to restrict private influence in public affairs.

The opposition campaign was bankrolled primarily by the Koch brothers, through the South Dakota chapter of their Americans for Prosperity network. Supporters from the South Dakota chapter of Represent.us, a Massachusetts-based anti-corruption group, were also relying on out-of-state money. AFP nonetheless positioned itself as a loyal home-team resisting carpetbagger interference, CPI reported. The Kochs’ South Dakota chapter is run by a conservative operative who has lived in the state for two decades.

South Dakota — where early white settlers were accustomed to doing business through graft — enjoys a lousy ethics reputation even in modern times.

Former Secretary of Tourism Richard Benda killed himself in 2013 while under indictment for stealing from taxpayers, about three years after he helped privatize the state’s EB-5 visa program for wealthy foreign investors and then resigned to take a job with the private firm that had taken over management of the taxpayer-backed system.

Then in 2015, Scott Westerhuis killed his wife, their four children, and himself while investigators closed in on the couple for embezzling a million dollars from a federal grant to provide college readiness programming to Indian children in the state.

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Republicans in the state have argued the November ballot measure overcorrects for lapses in state anti-corruption rules, “making de-facto criminals out of every elected office holder.”

But whatever objections the ruling GOP has, their choice of tactics is suspicious to State Sen. Billie Sutton (D). There was no need to declare an emergency to grease the rails, Sutton told the Huffington Post, since a judge had already enjoined the law pending legislative review.

The emergency ploy is political not substantive, according to Sutton. “They don’t want to hear from the voters through emails and personal conversations and forums over the weekend,” he told the site.

State legislative rules mean that emergency bills cannot be overridden by ballot measures in the future. After Thursday’s vote, the only path back to reform for those Dakotans who support the ethics overhaul will be to run opponents out of office. Given the sheer size of the state’s GOP majorities today, ethics reformers will have to rattle off a long list of election wins to gain enough seats