Emergency in South Dakota: State Legislature About to Overrule Voters’ Demands for Clean and Ethical Representation

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots.

Editor’s note: On February 1, the South Dakota legislature voted to repeal Initiative Measure 22, the comprehensive ethics ballot measure approved by voters in November 2016. Claiming voters had been “hoodwinked,” elected officials proceeded with the repeal despite widespread protest from South Dakota residents.​

If this election has shown us anything, it’s that people are fed up with “politics as usual.” As many as 75 percent of Americans feel politicians are corrupt. They responded by electing a complete Washington outsider as president and by passing many strong pro-democracy measures on state and local ballots nationwide.

With the public sending such a strong, clear message, one would think that elected officials would do all they could to make sure they were running a tight ship. But since the election, politicians are actively trying to eliminate these checks on their conduct, bypassing the will of the voters.

Most recently, in South Dakota, legislators are attempting to repeal an ethics ballot measure passed in 2016 by the majority of their constituents. And earlier this month, members of Congress tried to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics and threatened to silence the Office of Government Ethics. 

South Dakota: Lawmakers Declare “Emergency” to Repeal Democracy Reform Ballot Initiative

On Election Day 2016, South Dakota voters approved a complete overhaul of the state’s campaign finance law. The new initiative (Initiated Measure 22, otherwise known as the South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act) was backed by a strong, bipartisan coalition and created a democracy credit public financing system, improved disclosure, instituted a lobbyist gift ban and created an independent commission to administer and enforce the laws.

Despite the will of the people being clear - to bring ethics and transparency into the law - the South Dakota legislature, (with encouragement from Governor Dennis Daugaard) is about to kill the measure.

In an unprecedented maneuver, state lawmakers are planning to declare a state of emergency so their repeal of IM-22 would take effect immediately, and deny voters their right to another vote on the measure through a veto referendum. The repeal proposal emerged late on Friday while the nation was distracted with the presidential inauguration. Repeal leaders quietly scheduled a special joint meeting of the Senate and House State Affairs Committees for today to convene at the conclusion of each chamber’s floor sessions.

This is a blatant attempt to thwart the will of South Dakota voters. But it’s not surprising that South Dakota lawmakers are eager to sidestep the will of voters in order to continue lining their own pockets. South Dakota is ranked as the fourth most corrupt state in America. The initiative came about as a direct response to a number of corruption scandals that have rocked South Dakota politics, which is why the effort to repeal IM-22 is even more outrageous. Its provisions are matters of common sense — which is exactly why the people voted for them.  

For example, every other state and the federal government already impose limits or disclosure requirements on the gifts that lobbyists can give to elected officials. IM-22 was just bringing South Dakota with other states. But now South Dakota politicians insist on fighting their constituents for the privilege of accepting unlimited, secret gifts from lobbyists.

In addition, prior to the passage of IM-22, South Dakota was one of only eight states without an independent ethics commission. IM-22’s reforms prevent lobbyists from buying legislators’ support and compel elected officials to actually comply with anti-corruption laws.

Today is the committee vote in South Dakota. Floor votes will likely happen later this week and the repeal could be on the governor's desk by end of the week. Our partners Represent.Us, are leading a petition in the state to stop the repeal.

Congressional Ethics: Congress Attempts to Shutdown Congressional Watchdogs

The move in South Dakota came after a couple unsettling weeks for ethics advocates at the federal level.

Earlier this month, the House Republican conference voted to fold the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) into the House Ethics Committee. This move would have destroyed the only independent entity with the power to investigate congressional ethics abuses, placing it under the power of the very politicians it is designed to watch. It would also have prevented the office from communicating with the public or contacting law enforcement officials to inform them of possible criminal violations.  After a public outcry, the conference abandoned this plan — but they may bring it back later, when they think nobody is watching.

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE), the agency that handles ethics issues for the entire federal government, has faced similar treatment. When President Trump announced his inadequate plan to disentangle himself from his business interests, the head of OGE rightfully pointed out that putting his sons in charge of his finances while refusing to divest did not eliminate Trump’s many conflicts of interest. This is what OGE is charged by statute to do: to tell government officials when they’re violating ethics standards. But instead of acknowledging OGE had done its job, the chairman of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee sent a not-so-veiled threat to shut the office down.

Meanwhile, the Senate has been jamming through Cabinet nominees without waiting for OGE to finish its routine ethics reviews. Without these reviews, we won’t know whether some of the billionaires nominated for Cabinet positions have similar conflict-of-interest issues to the President’s.

Americans need mechanisms in place to protect against self-dealing and abuse of power. State-based democracy reform measures, such as South Dakota’s Initiated Measure 22, and independent federal ethics watchdogs are needed to ensure integrity in our democracy.