The legislature needs make government transparency a bigger priority next year
When voters approved Initiated Measure 22 last month, their attitude was quite clear. They want a more accountable, more transparent government.
The pair of scandals that have unfolded in the last five years or so — EB-5 and GEAR UP — were just too big to sweep under the rug. As much as South Dakotans trust their Republican led government, they just couldn’t ignore the fact that four children were apparently murdered in September of 2015 by their father after he stole millions of taxpayer dollars. The theft was made possible, at least in part, by lax oversight of the money on behalf of state officials.
A few years before that tragic incident, a former economic development official, Richard Benda, took his own life after investigators say he improperly used money generated by the EB-5 foreign investor program to secure himself a job in the private sector. Benda was going to be indicted before he died.
Long before either of these scandals came to light, the South Dakota government had been rated as one of the least transparent state governments in the union. Government transparency groups have long decried the state’s poor open records laws and lack of institutionalized accountability, such as an ethics commission.
Last year, for example, South Dakota was given an “F” by the Center for Public Integrity in its 2015 State Integrity Investigation. The state was ranked 47th when it comes to government accountability.
We don’t believe that low rankings and poor grades in studies that look at the existence or non-existence of laws mean that South Dakota is rife with corruption. The vast majority of our civil servants and elected leaders are good people who want to do good work on our behalf.
We do, however, believe in the old maxim “Trust but Verify”. And until IM-22 was approved, South Dakotans have had little ability to verify that their elected officials are in fact working in the best interests of the state or are instead working for special interests.
Legislators have repeatedly refused to update and strengthen the laws regarding public disclosure of government activities and the benefits legislators receive from lobbyists as well as just about anything else that threatens to give regular people more access to government. That’s why voters were forced to make the changes themselves.
But direct democracy isn’t the best way to get anything done. It often leads to poorly written legislation that can create more problems than it solves. Such is the case with IM-22.
All the good stuff in IM-22 such as an ethics commission and forcing legislators to report who gives them free stuff, has been overshadowed by the law’s failings. Public financing of elections is a bad idea, for example, so is restricting a person’s first amendment right to speak through their wallets.
The problems with the law are what led to the lawsuit that caused Circuit Judge Mark Barnett to issue an injunction against the law late last week. It now seems unlikely that IM-22 will survive the courts intact.
Hopefully, the good portions of the bill will survive. If not, the Legislature needs to learn from this episode and start making real progress toward giving South Dakotans a more transparent and accountable government. The people have spoken.
We say no matter the outcome of the IM-22 lawsuit, legislators need to improve government transparency during the next legislative session.
- South Dakota
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