Two-and-a-half party system operating in Legislature

January 6, 2023 5:41 pm

The first week of the legislative session is feast and famine for Capitol reporters. 

The famine is in the mornings when committees are supposed to meet. In that first week, some of them won’t meet at all. Others will meet to “organize.” Few, if any, will make any news that first week. 

The feast is on Tuesday afternoon when the governor gives her State of the State address. Most of the news she was going to make was likely in January’s budget speech, but there could be something in the State of the State worth writing about. 

The State of the State is followed on Wednesday afternoon by the State of the Judiciary speech. There could be news there if the chief justice is asking for funding for new programs or more judges. On Thursday, the afternoon session is given over to the State of the Tribes address from a tribal president. 

For a time there was some loose talk in the Legislature about a fourth speech that first week that would consider the State of the Legislature. The only time left for that speech was Friday afternoon and usually on Friday afternoons the Legislature clears out faster than freshmen at a suitcase college. They all want to head home rather than listen to another speech. 

But while that fourth speech never became a reality, it does raise an interesting question: What is the state of South Dakota’s Legislature? 

The answer can be summed up in one word: odd. 

In civics classes students learn about the two-party system of government. Currently the Legislature is working under a two-and-a-half party system. The half party is Democrats who have just four members in the 35-member Senate and seven members in the 70-member House. So few in number, they are of little consequence. 

What is the state of South Dakota’s Legislature? The answer can be summed up in one word: odd.

The other two parties in the Legislature both call themselves Republicans. One group is what you would call traditional Republicans — small government, low taxes, that sort of thing. The other group believes in that, too, but on steroids.  

This second group of Republicans has made significant inroads in the House, and it hasn’t happened overnight. 

As a Capitol reporter, I first became aware that there may be two Republican parties in 2017. At issue was HB 1053, a change in the Attorney Recruitment Assistance Program. The program, a joint effort of the State Bar Association, Unified Judicial System and participating counties, offered to bring attorneys to counties with populations of less than 10,000. 

When all the counties that wanted attorneys had them, HB 1053 would expand the program to allow it to be of service to municipalities with populations of 3,500 or less. Keep in mind that the program already existed and was already funded. All HB 1053 did was expand it to include small municipalities. 

It sounded to me, as a reporter and a taxpayer, like the kind of bill that legislators would welcome. A help for rural communities where those people who needed a lawyer wouldn’t need to invest so much windshield time in going to an appointment in the next community.

They wouldn’t be adding to the bureaucracy because the program already existed, and they wouldn’t be spending any more money because the program was already funded. It sounds like a Republican’s dream come true. 

The bill was presented on the House floor by Rep. Tim Reed of Brookings. New to the House, it was Reed’s first time presenting a bill on the floor. He must have wondered what he was doing wrong as his Republican colleagues kept rising to say what a bad bill he was offering. 

Dan Kaiser of Aberdeen called it socialism, asking taxpayers in counties that didn’t need the program to help pay for it. 

Steven Haugaard of Sioux Falls said he was tired of the state picking winners and losers, explaining that the program would be better off funded by a private foundation. 

Taffy Howard of Rapid City said taxpayers are tired of all the Legislature’s spending. 

Elizabeth May of Kyle came out on the side of taxpayers, too, saying that there would be ongoing costs associated with the program.

HB 1053 had breezed through the House Judiciary Committee on a 9-1 vote. Later it would clear the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and then fly through the Senate on a vote of 30-5. That wasn’t the case in the House where the bill, while it was successful, saw 21 Republicans vote against it. 

These are not your father’s Republicans. They have never met a tax that they would want a taxpayer to pay. They want to live in a world with no abortions, no transgender people and no restrictions on the Second Amendment. They are quick to lecture rather than discuss, and they see compromise as a sign of weakness.

If they could muster 21 House votes in 2017 to keep people in rural communities from having access to lawyers, there’s no telling what they could do in 2023 to education or health care or any of the hundreds of bills that go through the Legislature each year. No one knows how this session will turn out, but it’s obvious that the civics textbooks need to change. In South Dakota, the Legislature no longer operates under a two-party system. 



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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.