Before this matter slips completely off our radar, a few words need to be said here about a recent incident at the South Dakota State Legislature in which two lawmakers showed up intoxicated in the Senate chamber during session.
It happened on March 30-31 on what is commonly known as the Legislature’s veto day. At some point during this marathon session (in which some lawmakers participated remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions), Republican Sens. Kris Langer of Dell Rapids and Brock Greenfield of Clark, the Senate’s two top leaders, left the chamber for a break and consumed alcoholic beverages.
According to the KELO website, when they appeared back in the Senate chamber, some lawmakers said the two were visibly intoxicated. According to one lawmaker, Langer “wasn’t able to communicate” coherently when she returned to the Senate floor at about 1:15 a.m. March 31 while Greenfield’s speech upon his return was described as “thick and slurred.” Greenfield reportedly denied any drinking had taken place.
A motion was immediately made to investigate the matter, but it was ruled out of order and subsequently defeated.
However, three weeks later, both Langer and Greenfield finally admitted to a Senate investigation committee that they had been intoxicated while conducting official legislative business on the floor of the Senate and apologized. Vermillion Sen. Art Rusch (R), who chaired the committee, reportedly helped the senators craft the apologies.
Subsequently, the committee “admonished” the senators, telling them, in effect, not to do it again. Part of the reason they escaped something more potent than an admonishment is that they hadn’t been actually drinking “within the area of the Capitol building.” With that, this episode came to an end.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten.
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that if, say, a city commissioner, county commissioner or school board member turned up intoxicated at their respective meetings, they would likely face more than an “admonishment.” They might well be censured by the counterparts while also hearing a few resignation calls for dereliction of their duty.
The admonishment also becomes harder to swallow given the fact that at least one of the lawmakers lied about being intoxicated at the time, and it took the two accused senators three weeks to offer a public apology for their actions. This would seem to suggest that, for several weeks, they thought any expression of regret and/or contrition — let alone the truth — was unnecessary.
Yankton Sen. Craig Kennedy (D) sought to at least toughen the committee’s language for this reprimand by labeling it a censure, since that was one of the four options offered under Senate rules — the others being exoneration, discipline and expulsion — but it was defeated along party lines.
So, this messy incident is left with an “admonishment,” a wrist slap that accomplishes little beyond some mild embarrassment.
Again, that probably wouldn’t have been the case with other governing bodies.
A censure, at least by definition, would have served as a sterner step since it could produce a formal, written statement of disapproval.
But that will not be the case.
However, it shouldn’t close the book. Instead, it could be addressed by lawmakers in the next session by expanding and defining what constitutes unacceptable behavior — being drunk while trying to legislate (and then avoiding the truth for several weeks) should certainly qualify — on the part of legislators.
Otherwise, this episode stands as a limp precedent for future misconduct, and that’s plainly unacceptable.