If you listen to the governor's chief of staff, you would think South Dakotans never have been more pleased with how state government has been operating.
In fact, when Tony Venhuizen was informed that South Dakota received a grade of “F” from the State Integrity Investigation that examines government transparency and accountability in all 50 states, he pointed to a poll to dispute the results of the study.
“According to Gallup, South Dakotans’ trust in their state government is among the highest in the nation, and the state has very little corruption,” he told a reporter.
It was a sentiment echoed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who said the study has no credibility.
It appears, though, that many residents do not necessarily agree with that assessment, and one only has to look at what happened recently for confirmation.
Last Tuesday, the secretary of state's office received petitions to put eight more measures on the ballot, which means South Dakotans could vote on as many as 10 ballot items in 2016, including one to raise the minimum wage for those 18 and younger after lawmakers chose to amend a ballot measure approved in 2014 to raise the minimum wage for all workers.
Of those measures, three could dramatically change elections and how the Legislature operates.
One calls for an Independent Redistricting Commission to end what proponents call gerrymandering, or the creation of safe seats in the Legislature. If approved, it would be the commission rather than lawmakers that would take on the task of redistricting. Those petitions had a total of 40,400 signatures in an effort led by the South Dakota Farmers Union.
A second measure, submitted by a group made up of Republicans, Democrats and independents, would change the Legislature into a non-partisan body like has existed since 1934 in Nebraska. Those petitions had 39,182 signatures.
The third measure would establish an independent state ethics commission and revise campaign finance and lobbying laws. Those petitions had 25,216 signatures. Altogether, 104,798 signatures appeared on petitions for those three measures.
Perhaps, they were motivated to sign the petitions after watching the state's lackluster oversight and response to the ongoing EB-5 scandal, which has left millions of dollars of foreign investors' money unaccounted for and led to the apparent suicide of a former state official. Now, residents are watching the GEAR UP scandal unfold, this time with millions of federal dollars at stake and which apparently led a grant administrator to murder his wife and four children before taking his own life.
Those shocking events have startled residents across the state who in many cases are not satisfied with how the cases have been investigated.
The Legislature, meanwhile, has angered many taxpayers and put county commissions in a difficult position by passing legislation that requires counties to implement a wheel tax to become eligible for state grants to fix bridges.
The governor's office and lawmakers can point to their party's dominance in state and federal elections as evidence that voters are satisfied with their performance. But there is much more at stake here than winning elections. If they continue to downplay concerns about these scandals and fail to enact legislation that requires disclosure, transparency and accountability at all levels of state government, it could have a major impact on how South Dakota is perceived while leading to the kind of change they now seem to believe is unnecessary.
- South Dakota
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