Several months ago, I had to go to Sioux Falls for a mandatory legislative training about the South Dakota Legislature’s new website. During the first week, my older colleagues grumbled that they were not going to like this new system designed by and for young people, but after several weeks, it’s been widely embraced by young and old alike. At the meeting, we were told that the new website was going to bring our legislative process into the 21st century. It has, but I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.
The new website that legislators have to use for drafting their bills is a lot like Facebook. Legislators invite each other on the website to click whether the legislator is willing to be a prime sponsor, a cosponsor, or if they will not sponsor the legislation. If this sounds a lot like a click to “love,” “like” or “unfollow” a post on Facebook, that’s because it is. You can also select that you “need more information,” which is a lot like commenting on the bill, although the comment is privately sent to the bill sponsor, for now. I can see a future where legislators want their comments to be seen by their legislative friends through the new website.
The process of collecting co-sponsors is important, and it consumes the first few weeks of the legislative process. Last year, we collected co-sponsorships on paper. It looked and felt like chaos, but elected officials were talking to each other on the floor, haggling over bills. Representatives had to go to each other to pitch their bills. If I liked the pitch and the bill, I’d sign my name to a sheet of paper to declare my support. If I did not like it, I had to tell them no … to their face. The process also made our legislation better — a colleague would signal support but suggest a way to make the bill better. I did this a lot last year, and as a result, I got to work with my colleagues on legislation that would ultimately come to feel a little bit like mine since my suggestion was put into the bill. Now, if you want to make a suggestion, you have to send an email or try to find the person in our large capitol building.
In contrast to last year when we told each other “no,” some legislators got upset this year that they had to click “No” if they did not want to sponsor a bill that was sent to them on the website. Many complained that they did not want the other person to know that they did not like or want to sponsor their bill. So after these complaints, our IT department changed the system so you do not have to “offend” another legislator by clicking no. In other words, we can just ignore each other. So just like Facebook, people are not talking to each other to find common ground.
On this website (which you cannot see, by the way), I presently have 95 requests to sponsor a bill. Of those 95 requests, I bet only three or four colleagues have actually talked to me about their bills. Several of these requests for sponsorship come from my desk mate. I consider him a good friend up here. If you watch session, you can often catch us making smart aleck comments to each other. Yet, he has never mentioned the bills he wants me to sponsor even after I asked for his pitch. It’s online.
The new paperless process is a powerful new tool, but the Legislature is losing some of its camaraderie, and I fear the public is losing some of its access to the process. In past years, the public and the press could watch this process unfold from their respective galleries. During the mornings, the public could actually be on the floor to be a part of the action. But now, this formerly important legislative process is being done online without much dialogue.
Welcome to the 21st century.