VERMILLION — With a deadline two months away, sponsors of an anti-corruption measure are racing to get the proposed South Dakota constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot.
The amendment will need 27,741 valid signatures submitted on or before Nov. 6, 2017, to qualify for the 2018 ballot.
The Represent South Dakota organization has collected more than half the required number of signatures, according to spokesman Doug Kronaizl of Vermillion.
“The last sort of check that I had, we were at or near 16,400 signatures, but you always want to go over the number of signatures you need,” he said. “When they go through the verification process, some of the signatures may not be allowed.”
South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs approved the South Dakota Anti-Corruption Amendment petition for circulation. Since that time, Represent South Dakota and other supporters have held forums and petition drives across the state.
A major push will be made to obtain the needed signatures, Kronaizl said.
“I was in Yankton and got signatures before the Riverboat Days parade,” he said. “We plan to have volunteers at the state fair in Huron. We also plan to be in places like Ribs, Rods and Rock & Roll and at Dakota Days in Vermillion and at events at Sioux Falls.”
The petition drive has become a grass-roots effort, Kronaizl said.
“We’ve connected with a lot of folks who are eager to sign and circulate petitions,” he said. “South Dakotans want to weigh in on these issues.”
The organization is seeking a constitutional amendment particularly in response to the last South Dakota legislative session, Kronaizl said.
South Dakota voters passed Initiated Measure 22 (IM 22), an anti-corruption measure, in the November 2016 election only to see the 2017 Legislature repeal the law just weeks later. A constitutional amendment would be much more difficult to overturn.
“Voters passed IM 22 because we’re tired of South Dakota being rated as one of the most corrupt states in America,” Kronaizl said. “It was an assault on our democracy when our Legislature overturned the will of the people, and it will not stand.”
Kronaizl emphasized the anti-corruption amendment is not a repeat of IM 22 and has removed some of the earlier measures that raised opposition. For example, the proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t include IM 22’s “democracy credits” for the public financing of campaigns.
GOP lawmakers and others questioned IM 22’s constitutionality. They pointed to a lawsuit filed last November and issues raised by Circuit Judge Mark Barnett.
After repealing IM 22, the Legislature passed a package of five bills. Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the bills into law, which carried an emergency clause. By declaring an emergency, the bills became law immediately and were not subject to voter referendum.
District 21 Rep. Lee Qualm (R-Platte), the House Majority Leader, told the Press & Dakotan earlier this year that the Legislature has already addressed issues related to the anti-corruption issue.
The Legislature-sponsored bills included a lobbyist gift ban; establishing a government accountability board; certain “whistle blower” protections for public employees; requiring anyone elected to a statewide or local office to update their financial interest statements annually; and not allowing lawmakers to become lobbyists for two years after leaving office.
IM 22 was written by a Massachusetts lawyer and funded by out-of-state interests, Qualm said. He saw the measure as an attack on the South Dakota lawmakers’ integrity.
South Dakota law contains statutes against bribery, classified as a Class 4 felony, while IM 22 would have treated it as a Class 1 misdemeanor, Qualm added.
Without the emergency clause, the South Dakota attorney general would have needed to continue defending IM 22 in court, creating expenses for the state, Qualm said.
The state would also have been required to fund the start-up of portions of the law, Qualm said. Those programs included the democracy credits and other parts of the bureaucracy and the appointment of an ethics commission.
Many IM 22 supporters didn’t think the GOP legislation went far enough, Kronaizl said.
The proposed anti-corruption constitutional amendment would ban foreign money from South Dakota politics, restrict lobbyist gifts to politicians, and ban campaign money from union and corporations to candidates and political parties.
In addition, the amendment would stop politicians from using public office for private gain, toughen ethics law enforcement and project voter-approved laws from legislative tampering.
The Associated Press listed other features of the amendment. It would tighten campaign finance and lobbying restrictions, create an independent ethics commission and prevent the Legislature from altering or rejecting laws approved by voters without returning to the ballot.
A constitutional amendment requires twice as many petitions signatures as an initiated measure, Kronaizl said. However, the amendment would provide more protection against lawmakers overturning the will of the people, he added.
“We’re working with voters across the state to fight for a meaningful and comprehensive anti-corruption solution to the problems plaguing our government,” he said.
Two former state legislators, Republican Mitch Richter and Democrat Darrell Solberg, co-chair the bipartisan Represent South Dakota organization.
“This is about returning power to the people,” Richter said. “Creating an accountable government is not a left-versus-right issue.”
The anti-corruption amendment has also gained momentum because of legislative action. “When I saw the lawsuit that was filed by 24 legislators, other persons and the lobbyists organizations at the end of November, the red flags went up,” Kronaizl said. “I said they were coming after (IM 22), but I was surprised they repealed the entire measure, including parts that weren’t part of the lawsuit. I was also surprised that it was declared an emergency.”
Besides raising constitutional questions, some lawmakers said voters may not have fully understood the lengthy IM 22. In addition, they pointed to the cluttered ballot, which featured 10 initiatives and referendums.
Kronaizl noted those arguments sell voters short. “It’s presuming that voters lack the ability to process large amounts of information,” he said.
In addition, long ballots are the exceptions rather than the norm, Kronaizl said. The large number of voter-initiated measures send a message, he said.
“It reflects that legislators aren’t responding to the people, who then use the ballot measure process,” he said. “Most of it comes from a place where people don’t think they’re necessarily heard.”
Besides working with the anti-corruption amendment, Kronaizl is watching South Dakota task forces dealing with election laws. One task force has recommended raising the passage of state constitutional amendments from the current simple majority to 55 percent.
Kronaizl said he’s wary of watering down the people’s right to petition and pass their own laws. South Dakota led the nation in instituting the initiative and referendum, he noted.
“At its core, the Anti-Corruption Amendment is about returning power to the people and giving voters the final say,” he said.
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