Our Legislature is largely transparent, with one notable exception

April 10, 2023 3:19 pm
The South Dakota House of Representatives chamber at the Capitol in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

The South Dakota House of Representatives chamber at the Capitol in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

During the legislative session, South Dakota newspapers have been known to publish columns from their local legislators. These columns often appear on the editorial or opinion page since lawmakers are usually of the opinion that they are all doing a pretty good job of tending to the people’s business.

Late last month, those columns were filled with praise for the just completed session and all the work that lawmakers accomplished. In his after-the-session column, Rep. Will Mortenson, the House majority leader, praised the transparency of the Legislature in a column he headlined: “Ode to our citizen Legislature.” “I’m proud of our transparent process,” Mortenson wrote, “and will protect the guarantees that all bills receive hearings and that those hearings are available to the public immediately.”

Mortenson is right, to a point, about the transparency of the legislative process in South Dakota. Every bill — no matter who sponsors it, no matter how daft the contents — gets a hearing in the Legislature. As the House majority leader, Mortenson can’t slip a bill he doesn’t like into a drawer and forget about it. This year the Legislature dealt with 462 bills and resolutions. Every one of them got a hearing, if they weren’t first withdrawn by a sponsor.

Those hearings are done in public and quite an effort is made to make sure that South Dakota citizens know what’s going on. Morning committee hearings as well as the afternoon House and Senate sessions are available through South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

In his column, Mortenson alluded to threats against transparency in the legislative process. It’s unlikely there have been any threats to bill hearings or the broadcasting of those hearings, but it’s probably a good thing that Mortenson is in our corner, protecting all that transparency. As the majority leader of the House, Mortenson is in a position to lobby for even more transparency.

Each day during the session, usually right before the afternoon floor action, Republicans and Democrats break into caucuses. A caucus is a time when party leaders can get their members in line. It’s a time when decisions are made about how to vote.

Democrats conduct what they call an open caucus. The public is invited to watch the process of how they make decisions about bills. While they call it “open,” it’s not entirely. While the public is welcome, the news media is not. According to Senate Minority Leader Reynold Nesiba, Democrats don’t want a reporter tweeting out their decision before they vote. There are times, he said, when they change their minds between the caucus and floor action.

There are only seven Democrats in the 70-member House. Of the 35 members of the Senate, just four are Democrats. Their sparse numbers are probably why Capitol reporters haven’t been clamoring to attend their caucus and reveal their voting strategies.

The Republicans have super majorities in both chambers. It is within their power to dictate the fate of all legislation. Yet their discussions about that legislation are held in secret. The public is not allowed in. The existence of the party caucus causes a disturbing degree of opaqueness to overshadow a process that Rep. Mortenson went to such lengths in his column to praise as transparent.

When school boards or county commissions meet in executive session, there are laws governing the specific topics that can be discussed. The state lawmakers who made the rules for local governments, however, can shut out the public with no limits on the topics they talk about.

Not only are taxpayers shut out of these discussions, they get to pay for them. The secret meetings are held in the Capitol, a building the people own. Taxpayers get to pay for the upkeep, the heat and the lights so that lawmakers can sequester themselves away from the very public that they serve to decide the fate of the bills that will govern all of South Dakota.

There is plenty to praise about the transparency found in the way the South Dakota Legislature operates. However, the fact is that the secret nature of the Republican Party caucus muddies that transparency as it shuts out the public.




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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.