South Dakota citizens renew ballot battle with lawmakers

BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) — After watching South Dakota Republicans undo government ethics rules that voters had just imposed, Jennifer Krauel was angry enough to volunteer for a new anti-corruption ballot measure that lawmakers couldn’t overturn.

In a college town north of Sioux Falls, Krauel reminded welder David Scheibel of the ethics rules’ repeal. Republican lawmakers contended the law was likely unconstitutional, and they replaced it with other provisions — some called them workable, others called them weaker. But Scheibel, a 62-year-old Republican, was receptive to Krauel’s pitch, calling the legislators’ move a “slap in the face.” This year’s measure would be cemented in the state constitution — safe from legislative tinkering — and would hamstring lawmakers’ power to cast aside citizen laws.

“This is existential for our democracy,” Krauel, a registered Democrat who voted for the 2016 measure and started volunteering for the new campaign after its repeal, told The Associated Press. “This one really matters. I mean, let’s stop this nonsense now because I don’t want to have to do it again.”

South Dakota, which in 1898 became the first state to adopt citizen initiatives, is the “poster child” of a conflict between citizens and state legislatures over ballot questions, said Josh Altic, ballot measures project director at Ballotpedia, an organization that compiles electoral data.

It was one of several states where lawmakers brushed aside or changed 2016 voter measures. Lawmakers also came back with new rules on ballot question campaigns and proposed making the state constitution harder to change. Meanwhile, supporters of the measure known as Amendment W turned in enough signatures to put the ethics rules to voters — a shift that would hem in the Legislature’s power.

“As far as … initiative proponents sort of striking back, I guess you might say, there’s nothing like what South Dakota has on the ballot,” Altic said.

Republican lawmakers decried the campaign to pass the original measure as deceptive and challenged its constitutionality in court. A judge had put the law on hold before they scrapped it, and lawmakers followed up by creating an ethics commission and limiting lobbyist gifts to public officials.

Activists are counting on lingering anger to help pass Amendment W, which would tighten campaign finance and lobbying restrictions, establish a more powerful state ethics board and prevent the Legislature from changing voter laws — or the ballot question system — without a public vote.

Opponents say it would undermine the constitution, making the ethics board a new branch of government without checks and balances. A summary of the measure from the state attorney general says it would likely be challenged on constitutional grounds.

A recent poll found more people supporting the measure than opposing it, but a lot of respondents were still undecided. Support was about even among Republicans and Democrats.

Frustrated lawmakers are seeking their own changes. The Legislature is asking residents to raise the threshold for approval of constitutional amendments to 55 percent, from the current simple majority. Also, House Speaker Mark Mickelson gathered thousands of signatures to put a question on the ballot to bar out-of-state money for initiatives.

Mickelson said lawmakers are simply seeking to protect the rights of South Dakota residents to pass their own laws.

“The initiative process is a very cool thing. I’m using it myself,” Mickelson said.

Amendment W supporters have a huge money advantage, raising about $615,000 to opponents’ roughly $190,000. Major contributors in support of the amendment include Washington-based political action committee End Citizens United; the Massachusetts-based anti-corruption organization Represent.Us; and filmmaker J.J. Abrams.

That outside influence is a concern for Charles Schauer, a laborer from Sioux Falls who plans to oppose Amendment W.

“I just don’t think out-of-state people need to come in and tell us what to do,” he said.

Opponents’ advertising has focused on that outside financing and characterized the ethics board as having unchecked power. Supporters of Amendment W have promoted a message of fighting corruption; one ad showed a lobbyist feeding politicians turkey legs during a backroom deal.

“I would concede this: They have really strong sound bites,” David Owen, chairman of opposition campaign W is Wrong, said. “They’re not accurate.”

Krauel, who spent her recent 58th birthday knocking on doors for Amendment W, points to recent financial misconduct scandals that grabbed headlines in South Dakota as a reason the state needs stronger ethics rules. She said single-party dominance in state politics breeds corruption.

“Ethical government is the root of what protects our systems,” Krauel said. “If we can ensure that people trust their elected officials, then they’ll stay engaged.”


For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections:

Categories: Local News, Politics & Elections, South Dakota News