South Dakota lawmakers are moving swiftly to dismantle a set of ethics changes approved by voters last year, in what has become a heated battle between national forces over the role of money in politics.
The South Dakota House voted 54-13 this week to approve emergency rules to toss out the initiative, which established an independent commission to pursue ethics investigations against public officials, created public financing for elections and imposed strict limits on gifts from lobbyists and groups that employ lobbyists.
The bill is now before the state Senate, and a final vote could come this week.
The ballot initiative, pushed by a Massachusetts-based group called Represent.Us, won 51.6% of the vote in last November’s elections.
Officials in the Republican-controlled state legislature, however, say the measure is poorly written and overly broad. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard has indicated that he would sign the repeal.
Last month, he took issue with the public-funding provision, which would direct up to $4.7 million a year to pay for “democracy credits,” taxpayer-funded vouchers that registered voters could use to underwrite candidates’ campaigns. Daugaard said the money would be better spent on education.
Voters, the governor said, “were hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures."
Josh Silver, director of Represent.Us, said the South Dakota repeal action mirrors the recent, failed attempt by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to gut their own independent watchdog agency.
South Dakota politicians could face an “enormous” voter backlash if they succeed in killing the measure, said Silver, whose group has been running ads in the state, slamming lawmakers for the repeal effort.
“There is nothing the American people hate more than the will of the people being overturned by establishment politicians,” he said.
The fight also pits Represent.Us against the South Dakota chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the largest grassroots organization in the conservative political network tied to billionaire Charles Koch.
American for Prosperity (AFP) helped lead the unsuccessful effort to defeat the measure at the ballot box, arguing that the initiative’s provision to require advocacy groups to disclose their donors trampled on free-speech rights. AFP members in the state this week are calling lawmakers to urge the repeal of ballot measure, known as Initiated Measure 22.
This week, AFP’s South Dakota director Ben Lee said lawmakers are trying to "clean up the mess left behind by IM22.”
“Legislative leaders should be commended for looking out for South Dakotans, preserving their rights and the Constitution,” Lee said in a statement.
Represent.Us’ funders include philanthropic groups, such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a foundation associated with movie director and Democratic donor J.J. Abrams. It is advocating bipartisan campaign-finance measures around the country.
The group’s 2016 push into South Dakota came after a corruption investigation into state management of the federal EB-5 program, which grants green cards to wealthy foreigners in U.S. projects.
The ballot measure gave an independent ethics commission to power to investigate potential campaign-finance and ethics violations by lawmakers and to issue public reports on its findings.
South Dakota House Speaker Mark Mickelson, a Republican who supports the repeal, said the initiative overreached. Voters want an ethics commission to focus squarely on the misuse of public money, he said.
Mickelson has signed on to a bill that would create a State Accountability Board to probe issues such as bribery and embezzlement. The board would be attached to the state attorney general’s office. It would have to submit an annual report summarizing its work, but officials would redact information about the cases in which the board found no wrongdoing.
“In politics, the allegation kills you,” Mickelson said. “This new commission keeps any allegation private until there is a finding of reasonable suspicion.”
Lawmakers also have drafted other ethics bills to replace the initiative. They include a bill that would impose a $100 annual cap on gifts a lobbyist can give to a public official. Another would limit the amount of money that out-of-state interests could spend to place initiatives on the South Dakota ballot.
- South Dakota
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