Elections, pig pens and reports: Five items you missed at the S.D. Legislature this week
Headlines in the third week of the 2023 session were dominated by conflict. But a few other things went down at the Capitol.
PIERRE, S.D. — Attempting to ignore the proverbial elephant that, on Jan. 25 and 26, seemed to take the air out of the South Dakota State Capitol, it’s been a productive three weeks for the state’s 105 lawmakers.
Referring to the successful passage of a $200 million housing investment and an $18 million tax cut for businesses in the state through both chambers, Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison, said at the Republican’s weekly press conference, “you can't ask for a better start.”
Here are five trends and happenings you may have missed this week:
New members, old tricks
As Rep. Ben Krohmer, a Republican from Mitchell, said at a public discussion at the local chamber of commerce on Jan. 27, being a new member of the legislature can be like “drinking from a firehose.”
Like most oft-repeated legislative truisms, that one has merit to it, and several new lawmakers say the first three weeks have been mainly about finding routine in the busy days and nights in Pierre.
In learning the specific process of working with the Legislative Research Council to propose a bill, Rep. Amber Arlint, a Republican from Sioux Falls, said she used her experience working in insurance to help draft and carry a bill making it easier for out-of-state insurance companies to do business in South Dakota.
“I worked with the Division of Insurance on a very pro-business bill for the state,” Arlint said. “I'm an insurance agent, so they asked me to carry the bill, and that was a great way to learn the process with a lot of support.”
House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, who’s working with a caucus of about two-dozen members completely new to the legislature, said the parlaying of experience outside the legislature into activity inside the chamber is one perk of the state’s citizen legislature.
“They come in with no legislative experience but a ton of experience in other areas,” Mortenson said. “Those are the reasons many ran in the first place, so no surprise that their first bills come from there. As they stay in the legislature, their issue portfolio broadens.”
Arlint is not the only one drawing a clear line from past experience into proposed legislation.
Rep. Tim Reisch, a Republican from Howard and the former adjutant general of the South Dakota National Guard, brought two bills upping funding for deceased veterans in the state. Another legislator who has been deeply involved in veterans issues — this time with the American Legion — for years is Rep. Ken Teunissen, a Sioux Falls Republican with several proposals around helping disabled veterans.
Sen. Jim Melhalff, a former city official in Pierre, brought a bill altering when campaign signs can be displayed in municipalities. Rep. Kadyn Wittman, who works with a non-profit aiding homeless residents in Sioux Falls, submitted a proposal to waive the fee for a nondriver identification card for those under the poverty line, which can be a barrier to employment and housing, she said.
“What makes this much different than Washington, D.C., is the fact that we’re all citizen legislators,” Crabtree said. “Those of us who aren’t retired all have normal jobs we go back to.”
Building the ‘Hog House’
On Jan. 25, House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, of Pierre, introduced a bill “to encourage the reduction of taxes in the State of South Dakota.”
Rather than a ploy to pass the 15-word proposal unanimously through both chambers, the bill is a “hoghouse-vehicle.” In other words, it is designed to be amended later in session.
Amendments are a natural phenomenon in the legislative process, often employed to address minor concerns from lawmakers and improve the prospective law’s implementation. But sometimes, amendments are a bit more all-encompassing.
Take the House-approved grocery tax repeal from the 2022 session. The original Senate-passed bill was entirely morphed not once but twice in the House, an extreme example of a practice called “hoghousing,” which usually involves entirely re-writing a bill through an amendment.
The term itself, according to resident gubernatorial historian Rep. Tony Venhuizen, comes from the 1920s, when a lawmaker amended a bill initially proposed to put a hog facility at South Dakota State University — at the time the South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
On the last day of session, legislators revived the dead bill and amended it to increase their own expense allocations, ultimately vetoed by Gov. William McMaster, the 10th governor of South Dakota.
While the practice has become more common, last year’s grocery tax usage is a bit irregular, as the amendment re-wrote the bill’s title as well.
This session, Mortenson and Crabtree are hoping to be a bit more regimented with their “hoghousing,” if the process is used at all.
“[Hoghouse-vehicle] bills will be limited in number and only used as a last resort,” Mortenson said.
So far, the Senate and House side have each introduced six “hoghouse-vehicle” bills, two from the chair of each respective appropriations committee that can be used for any emergency, last-minute appropriations, and four from each leader, spread out across topics that should take up much of session: taxation, workforce, education, and public safety, among others.
The broad framing of these bills allows a “hoghouse” without a change to the bill’s title and without axing an innocent piece of legislation.
“It’s a longstanding tradition to put these out there so that priorities of the legislative body are successful,” Crabtree said.
Schoenbeck swings at never-ending reports
One tried-and-true governmental mechanism is the report. Dozens of laws in state government are attached at the hip to some sort of regular report assembled by some bureaucratic entity, ideally, a way to make sure that the law is being implemented and followed correctly.
But, as Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a Republican from Watertown, will tell you, that ideal functioning of government is a far cry from reality in some cases.
“When I find these worthless reports in state law, I've been trying to get them repealed,” Schoenbeck said during his presentation to the Senate Education committee on Jan. 24. “What happens is, we pass a law because we care about something and it's got a report, and the report never goes away.”
In 2021, at least 37 different legally-required annual reports were filed to the Legislative Research Council.
Last year, Schoenbeck helped repeal a report from the state’s public colleges and universities on the passage of certain license and certification exams by those earning degrees in the state.
This year, his focus is on repealing a report covering intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas, a relatively newer piece of annual documentation stemming from a 2019 law situated in the cancel-culture discourse of the day.
“I don't know if you've looked at this report, but it's the most ridiculous waste of taxpayer funds,” Schoenbeck said. “Of all the reports I've gone after, this is the worst, mostly because it's the thickest.”
Schoenbeck, ever the showman, took it upon himself to read to the committee members some of this 149-page report, which he says used about $10,000 in state resources to compile.
“You want to see exciting? Look at the School of Mines report. Here's just a couple of entries that it's important that we as legislators know, that's why it's in this report,” Schonebeck said to scattered laughs in the committee room. “‘A day in the life of a chemical engineer.’ ‘Structural and biochemical studies on DNA lesion bypass and glucose sensing.’ ‘Taking seismic geomorphology to the next level,’ — I don’t know what level it is — ‘with machine learning.’”
Though some opposition bemoaned the loss of this report and its guardrails against censorship on public college campuses in the state, Schoenbeck’s bill emerged from committee 5-2, passed the Senate 20-12 and heads to the House side next.
Election Week at the Capitol
Responding to concerns over election security that still linger from the 2020 election, representatives from Election Systems and Software provided a packed room of legislators, auditors and attendees from the general public with a demonstration of exactly how election machines work.
Chris Wlaschin, the senior vice president of the Omaha-based company, which provides ballot tabulators and other election machines for several South Dakota counties, said his team has led similar demonstrations in a handful of states.
“It's a chance to counter some of the myths out there,” Wlaschin told Forum News Service about the purposes of these demonstrations.
The Jan. 23 demonstration kicked off what was, unofficially, a sort of Election Week at the Capitol, culminating in Republican leadership announcing a comprehensive set of policy changes related to the state’s elections.
“The reason why we are focused on making sure that we are stronger and safer as we go forward, and that voters have the most confidence — and why are we focused on this session — is because if you tackle that next session, you end up with the change of law right in the middle of elections,” Crabtree said during a press conference on Jan. 25.
One proposal to clarify the role and rights of poll watchers, which responded to apparent concerns of “intimidation” last year by making it clear that watchers must be situated between four and six feet from voting activities, passed the Senate State Affairs committee unanimously on Jan. 25.
Other proposals from the litany of bills relating to election administration include creating rules for post-election audits; appropriating $313,000 in funds toward “voter roll maintenance, ballot machines, and election security;” and further delaying the destruction of ballots to allow increased oversight.
“The auditors have made their voices heard, and they've been there collaborating with legislators and committees to come up with things to improve the way the elections occur and the processes to make more efficient,” said Rep. Michael Diedrich, of Rapid City.
Appropriations: Free parking
The majority of bills introduced in the legislature are set on the prescribed route through one policy committee, to the chamber floor and then across the Capitol to do it all over again.
Yet most bills related to authorizing new spending or cutting taxes take one extra step: after they successfully exit the policy committee, they are “parked” in an appropriations committee, where the real test for these proposals is how they fit into the thousand-piece puzzle that is the state budget.
In the case of the grocery tax cut, while passing through the policy-focused House Taxation Committee is an important step, the real scrutiny for that and other competing tax proposals will come in the House Appropriations Committee, where Mortenson said they’ll be parked until at least Feb. 15, when revenue estimates are finalized — the size of the pie, as appropriators say.
“We want to do our full due diligence,” Mortenson said. “We’re talking about a lot of money.”
With the bulk of agency-by-agency presentations and requests over with, the Joint Appropriations Committee on Jan. 26 heard its first five bills — the first chunk of dozens of bills requesting state dollars that will be subject to the oversight of Sen. Jean Hunhoff, of Yankton, Rep. Mike Derby, of Rapid City, and the rest of the appropriators from the House and Senate.
While some bills, such as tax cuts, do require the committee to break out into its House and Senate components, Republican leadership said they want to keep the joint committee together as much as possible. In the past few years, the committee has often separated, leading to contentious back-and-forths in the waning days of session, a predicament leaders hope to avoid.
“[Keeping it together] is the plan, which is really an efficient and best practice, in my opinion,” Crabtree, of Madison, said. “And it’s something that we haven’t seen over the last couple of years. But our appropriators are focused on tackling the tough issues and that’s why it’s working well.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.