South Dakota lawmakers should give serious consideration this winter to resurrecting the ethics commission — a nonpartisan, independent panel that would hear complaints and reviews of governmental ethics violations — that this state ditched in 1979.
Yes, they SHOULD ... but smart money says they won’t.
A proposal calling for such a panel is promised from Democratic Rep. Peggy Gibson. South Dakota is one of only nine states lacking a watchdog ethics board, according to StateIntegrity.org
However, you can’t escape the feeling that the proposal will be one of those ideas that will die in some committee far removed from the main legislative floors.
Such an off-hand fate, should it come about, feels rather ironic these days.
It would come after so much time was spent on the EB-5 visa scandal last year, an ethics case that broke open with the suicide of a public official.
Now, we face the ethical matters surrounding the case involving the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, based in Platte. Again, public knowledge of this was prefaced by tragedy: a house fire that turned out to be a murder-suicide of a family of five. It came in the wake of an investigation of the personal finances of a manager who was also involved in the federal GEAR UP grant program in South Dakota.
The EB-5 incident prompted Gibson to propose an ethics commission last year but to no avail.
The Mid-Central incident will compel her to do the same this winter.
Most Republicans are opposed to it, arguing that the legislative oversight panel essentially performs the same function of an ethics panel — except it involves legislators policing themselves.
However, in the wake of two high-profile scandals, something more seems needed.
The ethics commission would be an independent, nonpartisan board that could deal with such issues without possible political pressures.
And that kind of board makes sense — and it would do so even without the recent scandals.
Democrats favor this measure, noting the longtime control Republicans have had on the Legislature. While that tends to cast this issue in a partisan light, the fact is that one-party dominance of any governing body can lead to abuses, large and small, in part because of diminished systemic accountability.
Beyond the party labels, our legislative branch is structured to allow lawmakers of either party to have long careers in Pierre, provided they are willing to switch chambers every few years. This creates a culture of bureaucratic entrenchment that really demands an outside watchdog to serve as a balance.
StateIntegrity.org. gave the state an “F” rating for its governmental ethics, noting: “South Dakota has neither comprehensive state ethics laws nor an ethics commission to oversee state officials and bureaucrats. And it comes up short in requiring public officials to disclose financial details.” (It also noted the lack of open government, but acknowledged that issue has been addressed somewhat in recent years.)
In the wake of what we’ve seen in the last two years — and frankly, what we still don’t see now — an ethics commission seems like a reasonable consideration for this state. It’s too bad the idea probably won’t go anywhere this winter. On the other hand, maybe that fact only reinforces the case for such a panel.
- South Dakota
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