Gov. Noem signs bill to improve government transparency
PIERRE, S.D. — Gov. Noem has signed a bill into law that prevents state governments from entering into secret lawsuit settlements, and makes state legal agreements public record.
Proponents say that the new law will prevent local and state governments from hiding corruption and misconduct. Additionally, government legal agreements often involve taxpayer dollars.
According to Noem, “South Dakotans deserve to know where their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent, but current law allows the government to confidentially negotiate agreements in order to protect wrongdoers.”
The same bill was killed last year, but one of its main sponsors, Sen. Arthur Rusch, reintroduced it and was able to push it through to Gov. Noem’s desk this legislative session.
Rusch says the bill arose primarily as a response to the Denny Sanford Premier Center scandal, in which contractors that built the $117 million dollar Sioux Falls events center constructed faulty side paneling that began buckling over time.
City officials negotiated a secret settlement over the warped panels, and told the public that the contractors agreed to pay $1 million to the city.
Argus Leader Media sued the city for access to the settlement, and it was eventually discovered that the city did not receive $1 million, and in fact paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Argus Leader reports.
Rep. Rusch says that South Dakota’s lack of transparency regarding government lawsuits and settlements is an anomaly.
“Most other states have laws or court opinions that forbid governments from using confidential settlements to hide taxpayer payouts, and the federal government is also prohibited from negotiating confidential settlements in civil cases,” said Rusch.
“The big argument that we hear is that it might contain embarrassing details if these settlements are released,” Rusch continued. “And yeah, that’s probably true. That’s why there are lawsuits filed because there are embarrassing things that might come out of that and … if public officials are engaging in things that would embarrass them then the public aught to know about that.”
The move marks another step in Noem’s efforts to create greater government transparency and crack down on corruption. Noem also signed a reporter shield law that prevents journalist from being legally compelled to disclose their sources and other information.
Last week, the South Dakota Newspaper Association gave Noem a grade of “so far, so good” in terms of her transparency. The rating came despite public criticism Noem was facing at the time for pushing a pipeline bill package through days before the end of the legislative session.
The push gave lawmakers and the public little time to properly assess the full effects of the bills, and tribal leaders complained that Noem’s administration consulted with TransCanada while crafting them, but didn’t speak with the state’s tribes.
In her State of the State Address, Noem promised “to work toward building the most transparent administration South Dakota has ever seen.”
“Many Americans and many South Dakotans are losing their trust in government,” said Noem. “This is particularly true of the younger generations. Stories of government ineptitude and downright scandal don’t help matters much. I hear you. I’m with you.”
According to Dave Bordewyk, executive director of the Newspaper Association, Noem still has a lot of work to do — including making police reports and government officials’ correspondence public.
Additionally, Noem has also set out to improve transparency and integrity in South Dakota’s campaign finance regulations.
The new transparency law goes into effect on July 1.