Lobbyists in the halls of the South Dakota Capitol building in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
Lobbying is one of the least transparent political activities in South Dakota, and an interest group’s inclusion of three legislators on a recent tour of the U.S.-Mexico border provides an example.
The three legislators are Sen. Casey Crabtree, R-Madison, Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, and Rep. Tony Venhuizen, R-Sioux Falls.
I’m picking on their trip because it’s a handy example. They deserve some credit for speaking publicly about the trip and acknowledging it was paid for by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. That’s an offshoot of Americans for Prosperity, a national nonprofit that spends millions annually to advance conservative causes. The reason I know about the trip is because the legislators and AFP didn’t keep it a secret.
But after answering a general question via email, Americans for Prosperity’s South Dakota office did not respond to my follow-ups, and I have not seen a disclosure of how much the foundation spent on the legislators. South Dakota’s lobbying disclosure laws do not require the foundation to disclose that information, according to prevailing interpretations of the statutes.
Compare that situation to our campaign finance laws, and consider the contrast: When the campaign committees for Crabtree, Mortenson and Venhuizen receive more than $100 from any person – even someone they’ve never met – they’re required to disclose the amount along with the donor’s name and address. But when a major national political organization takes all three legislators to Texas for two days to influence their views on immigration policy (in other words, to lobby them), that organization is not lawfully required to disclose the costs. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity has also fought successfully in the courts to keep its donor information private.
South Dakota does have a state law that supposedly caps the value of lobbyists’ gifts to individual lawmakers at $115.47 per calendar year (it’s not a round number because it’s adjusted annually for inflation). But that cap and other portions of our lobbying laws are riddled with exemptions. One exemption is for “any cost to educate or inform the public official on matters of public policy,” which arguably exempts everything a lobbyist does.
Thus, the expense reports that hundreds of lobbyists and their clients file with the Secretary of State’s Office – only once a year, about three months after the annual legislative session – often disclose no expenses at all. The only thing disclosed on many of the forms is the name of the lobbyist and the client.
That’s one of the reasons the Center for Public Integrity gave South Dakota an “F” and ranked its lobbying disclosure laws as the 49th worst in the country in 2015. I can vouch for the research, because I did it (and submitted it for an independent review). The center hired me as its South Dakota researcher that year for its nationwide State Integrity Investigation.
The top-ranking state for lobbying disclosure laws was Alaska. In that state, lobbyists file multiple reports each year that list their reimbursable expenses and the compensation from each of their clients. It’s a novel concept: disclosures that actually disclose.
Furthermore, Alaska’s reports are digital and can be manipulated on a website to display totals per lobbyist or employer, and the results are downloadable as a spreadsheet. South Dakota’s lobbyist expense reports are available online, but only as individually scanned pieces of paper.
My point in making these comparisons is not to criticize the three lawmakers who accepted the trip to the border (although I can think of many in-state problems that could use their attention), or to claim there’s anything inherently wrong with lobbying.
But there is something wrong with a lobbying disclosure system that yields almost no useful information. You might think it’s fine that a national interest group paid for three legislators to visit the Mexican border, or you might dislike it. Either way, you should be able to access a report that discloses the trip, along with the cost and the source of the money, so you can form your own opinion about the way interest groups are seeking to influence your lawmakers.
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