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In November, South Dakota voters passed a ballot measure instituting campaign finance and lobbying reforms and creating the first independent ethics commission in the state's history.
In January, Republican state legislators are preparing to dismantle the measure — and take steps to ensure it never appears on the ballot again.
A state legislative committee voted Monday to repeal the new law, Initiated Measure 22, despite protests from ethics watchdogs who placed the measure on November's ballot. Ten Republicans voted to kill the measure, while one Republican and the committee's two Democrats voted to keep it.
The committee took the unusual step of implementing emergency rules, which would overturn the measure immediately and block a possible referendum that would allow voters to overturn the legislature's actions.
"This is a brazen overturning of the election results. It's a brazen rejection of the will of the people, and it will likely create a similar backlash to efforts to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics a few weeks ago," said Josh Silver, a spokesman for Represent Us, which sponsored the law. "Everything in this law is common sense."
Republicans, who dominate South Dakota's government, object to a provision of the measure that would create taxpayer-funded credits that voters could use to contribute to their preferred candidates. In his state budget address, Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) said that meant nearly $5 million in funding would have to come out of other parts of an already-stretched budget.
"I believe it's not responsible to use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns at the expense of education, and I am certain the voters of this state do not support that," Daugaard told legislators. His budget proposal recommends leaving the voucher program unfunded.
"This is easily the worst drafting I've read in my 20 years in coming to the Capitol," Daugaard said. "It's vague, over broad, and it used undefined and inconsistent terms. This sloppiness leads to an endless number of bizarre and unintended consequences."
The measure includes increased penalties for campaign finance and lobbying violations, and it would create an independent ethics commission to administer the voucher program and police state legislators.
A state judge blocked implementation of the law in December. The judge said a final decision on the law's constitutionality would rest with the South Dakota Supreme Court.
Legislators said the law is too cumbersome to unwind piecemeal, and that full repeal was the only option.
"I firmly believe we need to get rid of this, start over. It's better to throw it all out, start over so it's something done by South Dakotans and not from anybody else," House Majority Leader Lee Qualm (R) told the committee, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
Out-of-state groups accounted for most of the money both proponents and opponents used to campaign for and against the measure. Campaign finance reports filed with the South Dakota Secretary of State's office show Americans for Prosperity, a cornerstone of the Koch brothers' political network, contributed $590,000 of the $609,000 opponents raised, while supporters raised most of their money from a political action committee in Massachusetts.
Lawmakers will consider two bills to reinstate at least some of the ethics changes included in IM 22, including a limit on the value of gifts lobbyists can give to lawmakers and establishing a new accountability board to keep an eye on legislators.
The House will vote this week on whether to gut the ballot measure. The Senate would vote on the proposal next, and Daugaard has said he would sign a roll-back.
Ethics watchdogs have long ranked South Dakota among the worst states for political corruption. A 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity ranked South Dakota 47th out of 50 states for ethics, and the state has been wracked by a series of scandals over a federal program that offers green cards to immigrants who invest in businesses that will create jobs.
- This story was updated at 11:11 a.m.