Primaries for attorney general, term limits for PUC nixed by House panel

Sponsor of bill to remove nominations from party conventions says he won’t revive issue this year

By: - January 17, 2024 4:40 pm
The sun sets behind the South Dakota Capitol in Pierre on Dec. 5, 2023 (Makenzie Huber, South Dakota Searchlight)

The sun sets behind the South Dakota Capitol in Pierre on Dec. 5, 2023. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

The House State Affairs Committee nixed two proposals Wednesday in Pierre that would have affected the choices of South Dakota voters.

The first defeat, which came on an 8-5 vote, was for a resolution asking voters to upend the way parties choose candidates for some statewide offices. The second, defeated on a 9-4 vote, would have created term limits for public utilities commissioners.

House Joint Resolution 5001 would have placed a constitutional amendment on this year’s general election ballot that would have upended the state’s party convention system for choosing attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and commissioner of school and public lands candidates.

If passed by voters, the amendment would have created primary races for those offices. 

Rep. Tyler Tordsen, R-Sioux Falls, listens to testimony in the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 17, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
Rep. Tyler Tordsen, R-Sioux Falls, listens to testimony in the state House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 17, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Tyler Tordsen, R-Sioux Falls, said primaries would put the decision where it belongs: in the hands of voters.

General election candidates for those positions are currently chosen by party delegates to the state conventions that take place after primaries.

“These important decisions are made by a handful of party bosses,” Tordsen said.

Attorney General Marty Jackley ascended to the general election ballot during the 2022 Republican convention in the face of a nearly victorious insurgent candidate. Secretary of State Monae Johnson earned her spot on the 2022 ballot thanks to a close convention vote that ousted Steve Barnett, who would have run as the incumbent candidate.

Potter County Republican Larry Eliason testified in support of the resolution, noting that not all counties have the party leadership necessary to participate in the state convention. 

“At the last convention, 10 counties, including mine, had no voice,” Eliason said. “They had no vote.”

Yvonne Taylor, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Advocacy Network for Women, also offered words of support. The League of Women Voters is among the 12 associations represented by Taylor’s organization, and the league backs primary races for all statewide offices.

“We believe letting citizens decide who represents them is a bedrock principle,” Taylor said. 

Opposition fires back

The resolution saw heavy opposition from some GOP insiders. 

State GOP Chair John Wiik of Big Stone City, who also serves as a senator for District 4, acknowledged that infighting has been an issue for his party. But he also argued that a constitutional amendment is a “big government solution” with long-term consequences.

Unlike an initiated measure passed by voters or a law passed by legislators, a constitutional amendment cannot be undone or adjusted by lawmakers. The failed Senate Bill 40 from last year would have done much of what HJR 5001 attempted to do, Wiik said, but “would have allowed the Legislature to tweak things,” Wiik said.

Sen. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City, listens to testimony during an appropriations committee hearing in Pierre. (Josh Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
Sen. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City, listens to testimony during an appropriations committee hearing on Jan. 12 in Pierre. (Josh Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

Wiik likened the convention system to the Electoral College for presidential elections. That system, extolled as virtuous and ideal through a resolution backed by both chambers last week, is meant to offer a stronger voice to rural areas in national matters.

The convention system, which leans on votes from county-level party leaders, gives candidates an incentive to engage with people from all across the state, Wiik said.

“If we move to a primary system, what is the incentive for a candidate to visit a place like McIntosh or Martin or Milbank?” he said.

Also opposed were two elected officials who landed on the last general election ballot by way of party convention: Commissioner of School and Public Lands Brock Greenfield and Auditor Rich Sattgast. The latter official suggested that primaries would violate the spirit of Article VII, Section 3 of the state constitution, which says the Legislature “shall by law define … the nomination of candidates.”

Passing the resolution amounts to “abdicating your responsibilities,” he told the committee.

Other opponents suggested that voters are too busy to keep up with candidates for all offices in primaries and rely on convention representatives to study and understand where candidates stand. Opponents also pointed to the potential for “special interests” to spend money in primaries and influence outcomes.

Democrats help defeat proposal 

In his rebuttal, Tordsen said he was surprised that anyone would be opposed to letting voters decide if they’d prefer primaries or conventions. He also questioned the validity of testimony from office-holders who benefited from the current system.

“What I heard was that the process worked for them individually, and that voters can’t be trusted,” Tordsen said.

Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, R-Sioux Falls, moved to pass the resolution. 

“This is about the voters, whether or not they’re Republican, Democrat or independent,” Rehfeldt said. “It gives the power to the voters.”

But others had a different take. Rehfeldt’s move to pass the resolution failed 6-7. 

Sen. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, participates in a committee hearing during the 2023 legislative session. (Makenzie Huber, South Dakota Searchlight)
Sen. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, participates in a committee hearing during the 2023 legislative session. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, described the proposal as a “divisive” knee-jerk reaction to the messiness of the 2022 convention.

“We shouldn’t upend our entire election system because some people are unhappy,” said Hansen, who moved to defeat the bill

Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, also opposed the measure. He characterized the issue as one meaningful to Republicans with ideological differences, not one that matters to all voters or his party.

“I find it kind of amusing that we’re sitting here again trying to solve a Republican Party problem,” Lesmeister said. “I encourage you, please, to take your problem home and solve it.”

After defeating Rehfeldt’s attempt to pass the resolution onto the House floor, the committee voted 8-5 to send it to the 41st day, ending its chances of appearing on the general election ballot. The committee’s two Democrats cast decisive votes in opposition. 

Tordsen told South Dakota Searchlight that he’s fielded many calls to “smoke out” the resolution, which is a maneuver to resurrect a bill on the House floor.

Tordsen said he has no plans to do that.

“I’m not a huge fan of circumventing normal procedure, even if the rules allow it,” he said in a text. “Mainly out of respect for my colleagues in their committee work. My approach was to be transparent and respectful every step of the way.”

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PUC term limits knocked down

The committee’s other election-related proposal came from House Speaker Hugh Bartels, R-Watertown. It would have limited public utilities commissioners to two six-year terms in office, though it would allow the three current commissioners to start the clock at the next election.

Bartels said he “doesn’t have a vendetta against the PUC.” The idea is more about consistency, he said.

Aside from judges, he said, “this is the only elected office that doesn’t have a term limit.”

Bartels said he understands the complexity of the PUC’s work to regulate things like utility rates and pipelines, but also that the experience of a veteran commissioner isn’t the only form utility expertise takes.

Commissioners don’t get involved with research until a question reaches a hearing.

“It’s not researched by the commissioners,” Bartels said. “It’s researched by the staff.” 

South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson, pictured on election night in 2022. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

PUC Commissioner Chris Nelson spoke in opposition on behalf of all commissioners. While serving as secretary of state, Nelson said, he once asked the author of South Dakota’s legislative term limit statutes, former Rep. John Timmer, why he and the other backers of term limits exempted the PUC.

“He said, ‘We looked at the public utilities commissioners, and we,’ – meaning the drafters – ‘felt that they had some technical knowledge worth keeping around,’” Nelson said.

Commissioners review thousands of pages of documents before they sit as a quasi-judicial body to make decisions for ratepayers. That the current slate of commissioners has been stable for 13 years, Nelson said, is part of the reason no decision of theirs has been overturned by the state Supreme Court in 20 years.

He coasted to victory in 2022 against Democrat Jeff Barth, and said his campaign’s focus on experience and the 69% vote tally in his favor serve as proof that voters believe in the value of institutional knowledge.

“Do utility consumers want rookies working for them?” Nelson said.

Some committee members were not swayed. Rep. Roger Chase, R-Huron, said exempting commissioners from term limits can’t be justified by a need for experience.

“We as legislators, sitting on this committee, at one point were all rookies,” Chase said.

But Rapid City Republican Rep. Becky Drury agreed with Nelson.

“Their term limit is when they run for re-election,” she said.

Rep. Rocky Blare, R-Ideal, moved to defeat the bill. That motion succeeded on a 9-4 vote.

 

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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

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