People use county roads to get to town to buy booze. People who do stupid things after drinking that booze then use county jails. Counties do not get to tax sales or alcohol to pay for those roads and jails. Towns do.

Why the Legislature so throttles the counties but not the towns escapes me. As the road funding bill has been pared down to reduce the funding counties get to fix their deteriorating roads and bridges, the Legislature is advancing Senate Bill 135, which would allow the towns to impose an additional sales tax for their needs.

The Legislature's willingness to heed town criers while ignoring destitute county commissions seems odd. By itself, however, SB 135 doesn't seem like a terrible idea. If towns have needs, they ought to be able to meet those needs. Local control, yadda yadda.

But then Pat Powers comes tooling along for the Koch Brothers to shout Oh my Mammon! SB 135 increases taxes $150 million! Aaaaaaaahhh!

Please. The press release Pat reads from Americans for Prosperity lives in the La-La Land in which its Koch-sipping serfs need to make it look like they are busy. "If every city in South Dakota participated, it would mean more than $150 million in new taxes." Sure. And if every city in South Dakota participated, that would mean every city in South Dakota apparently has unmet needs, and a majority of voters in every city in South Dakota agree that their city commissioners are making wise taxation decisions. That's how democracy works... but as we know, Americans for Prosperity has a problem with democracy. They thus must blow up local control as an evil new tax and stand in the way of local governments meeting local needs.

Americans for Prosperity—remember, they're not for the collective prosperity, just the prosperity of the 1%.

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Senate Bill 166, Senator Corey Brown's spiteful and sinister attack on your right to legislate via initiative and referendum, hits Senate State Affairs tomorrow morning, Friday, at 9 a.m.

Friends and neighbors, now would be a good time to call the members of Senate State Affairs (who include Senator Brown) and tell them to kill this voter-hating bill. As I note in my latest essay for South Dakota Magazine, Senator Brown's bill says we don't trust voters to make good decisions at the polls and we must protect them from their own ignorance by reducing the number of issues they have to vote on. (I'm waiting for the nanny-state chorus here....)

Rick Weiland and Gordon Howie agree that SB 166 is a terrible idea that rejects South Dakota's grand tradition of putting faith in the voters:

“While the two of us have different views on public policy, during the campaign we also found common ground on several issues, one specifically being our belief that the will of our people is all too often ignored by our elected officials in both political parties”, Weiland said. “In our view, one of the clearest and best vehicles to ensure that citizens are heard is the initiative and referendum process–which, it’s worth noting, was started in South Dakota in 1898, and was such a good idea that it was copied by 23 other states”, Weiland added.

“Doubling the signature requirement for initiative and referendum petitions is a terrible idea, and we’re urging South Dakotans to forcefully let their state senators and representatives know that they oppose it. And what is particularly egregious is that the sponsors have tagged it with the 'emergency clause' which, if passed, would make it take effect immediately and, more importantly, mean that it can’t be referred to a vote of the people via a referendum petition”, Howie stated. “If the sponsors really believe that essentially doubling the signature requirement for initiatives and referendums is 'an emergency,' then we fear for their judgment, and what they would call an actual emergency”, Howie added. “In truth, the 'emergency' that these legislators fear is that South Dakota citizens, acting together, will substitute their judgment for that of our legislators. That is not an 'emergency,' its democracy as it’s been practiced in our state since 1898,” Howie said [Rick Weiland and Gordon Howie, joint press release, The Right Side, 2015.02.04].

The Senate State Affairs agenda is crowded tomorrow: they are also taking up Senate Bill 1, the ginormous road funding bill. SB 1 appears first on the agenda, which says the hearing will begin in Room 423 at the Capitol at 9 a.m., then move to Room 414 at 10:00 a.m. There's not telling at what exact time the committee will take up Brown's SB 166, so be there from the opening gavel and listen closely for your opportunity to testify to legislators what a really, really bad idea it is to make it harder to place initiatives and referenda on the ballot.

Update 15:46 CST: If you'd like to e-mail the members of Senate State Affairs, here are their addresses. E-mail them individually, and be sure to use a clear subject line, like "Vote No on SB 166."

If Senator Lederman replies with his bogus line that SB 166 simply brings petition law in line with the state constitution, invoke Bill Janklow. The ever-subtle Bob Mercer posts to his blog a 1975 official opinion from then-Attorney General Janklow, who explained that the Legislature had adopted the current petition signature threshold (5% of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election) in response to the fact that maximum constitutional threshold (5% of "qualified electors," which SB 166 would restore) is too vague and difficult to calculate. No one knows how many qualified electors there are in South Dakota at any given moment. SB 166 would pin petition signatures to someone's wild guess; current law derives signature count from a firm, documented number.

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Funny the ideas that pop up when one blogs and teachers. In our blog discussion Tuesday of House Bill 1089, the proposed ban on female genital mutilation, I mentioned my college-days battle against multiculturalism. I walked into class today and found students reading a text on multiculturalism in literary theory. I mentioned my concerns about value relativism to the students (how can we critique Western culture of multiculturalism encourages us to value and celebrate all cultures?). But then I read this passage that casts multiculturalism as a healthy democratic response to oppression:

As opposed to the hierarchies set up by European colonists, [Frantz] Fanon imagined the independent Algerian republic working on the principles of extreme decentralization, with contact and interchange between the leaders and the rank and file, and a clear understanding that the government would be at the service of the masses. In addition, he said, "Women will have exactly the same place as men, not only in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school, and in the parliament." The living expression of the nation would be found not in the leaders, the palaces, or rituals of politics, but in "the moving consciousness of the whole of the people: it is the coherent, enlightened action of men and women" [Stephen Bonnycastle, In Search of Authority, 2007, p. 231].

Decentralization, encouraging the rank and file to make their own decisions, expecting leaders to communicate with and respond to the people, supporting women's equality, legislating with a focus on helping more people express their will... almost the perfect opposite of what Republicans are doing to South Dakota.

And then it hits me: we are being colonized by our own legislators. Co-opted by corporate imperialists, our legislators are putting us in chains, disrespecting the popular will, and dehumanizing us to make easier their seizure of our wealth and pollution of our land and water.

We children of empire now fight the new corporate empire. We colonizers become the colonized. I may have to revisit my SDSU textbook on multiculturalism.

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I guess it was too much to hope that the Legislature could do petition reform without making things worse. But no: propose a bill dealing with election law, and Republicans will get out their knives and do all they can to cut more people out of the political process.

After a week of delay, Senate State Affairs finally revisited Senate Bill 69, the primary petition reform bill proposed by the Board of Elections. Committee Republicans did not amend SB 69 the way the ACLU and ballot access expert Richard Winger testified was necessary to protect the access to the ballots that the courts have said is new parties' constitutional right. The committee did not fix the legislation to avoid the court challenge the ACLU said South Dakota could face if it moves the new-party petition date to February.

Instead, Senator Corey Brown (R-23/Gettysburg), seconded by Senator Dan Lederman (R-16/Dakota Dunes), amended a whole different section of statute to change the requirements for Independent candidates to get on the ballot. Right now, Independents seeking statewide office must obtain signatures from a number of registered voters equal to 1% of the total votes cast for governor in the last general election. Based on the 2014 turnout of 277,403 voters, that's 2,775 signatures. Lawmakers amended SB 69 today to change the requirement to 1% of all registered Independents. That number shifts from month to month, but the latest number from the Secretary of State counts Indies at 103,856. That means Independent candidates for U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and PUC in 2016 will need to gather just 1,039 signatures, 63% fewer than current statute requires.

Hold your huzzahs, Larry Pressler. Current law also allows Independents to get signatures from any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, as long as that voter has not signed for another candidate. Right now, Indy candidates have 522,636 registered voters whose signatures they can pursue. Given a state population of about 850,000, an Independent petitioner's chances of picking an eligible petition signer out of a crowd at a Stampede or Rush game is about 61%. Under this amendment to SB 69, bolstered by a second amendment by Senator Ernie Otten (R-6/Tea), those odds drop to 12%.

Just how much harder does this amendment to SB 69 make it for Indies to get on the ballot? Let's imagine an ideal situation, the perfect candidate who can get every eligible voter to sign. To get all the necessary signatures, plus the smart 20% cushion to prevent error, an ideally appealing Indy petitioning under current law needs to approach (2,775 ✕ 120% ÷ 61% =) over 5,400 people. Using the same math, under SB 69 as amended, an ideal Indy would need to approach (1,039 ✕ 120% ÷ 12% =) over 10,200 people.

In other words, an Independent now has to work a crowd or a neighborhood 88% harder to get on the ballot.

Why do that, Republicans? Making it harder for Independents to run for office serves no public good. It serves only the dominant party's interest in nipping the power of a surging portion of the electorate in the bud.

Senator Brown further stunk up Senate Bill 69 by attacking the "placeholder" practice in which candidates with no intention of standing in the general election petition their way onto the ballot in the spring, then withdraw after the primary, allowing party chairs to pick replacements. The parties (Democrats more often than Republicans) avail themselves of placeholders when they can't recruit definite candidates by the end of March deadline and want to keep trying until August. Moving the petition deadline to the end of February cuts further into the time parties have to recruit candidates, making the placeholder tactic more valuable. Senator Brown, who said last week he finds the placeholder practice "abhorrent," amended SB 69 to forbid it. Under his amendment, the only ways candidates can withdraw will be if...

  1. they get nominated, elected, or appointed to another elective office that they can't hold simultaneously with the one they are running for;
  2. they move out of the district.
  3. they die; or
  4. they or immediate family members are diagnosed with an illness after filing and the candidate produces a note signed by two doctors describing the illness (that's got to violate medical privacy rules, not to mention common human decency).

I can barely get past the Ed-Rooney-to-George-Peterson crassness of condition #4 to fully calculate the electoral mischief. But I can pick my jaw up off the floor long enough to indict Senator Brown's placeholder amendment on two counts. First, Brown's amendment leaves no room for replacing a candidate who petitions seriously, then gets caught in a major scandal. That omission could bite any party.

More importantly for understanding what's really happening now with SB 69, consider that if Brown's amendment has any merit, it lies in the notion that letting party chairs pick candidates is undemocratic. If that's his point, I would agree, to an extent. But Brown's amendment still lets party chairs pick replacement candidates when "There is no other nominee for the office sought by the withdrawing candidate as of the time of the withdrawal." That clause says that in an uncontested election, the party chair gets to name not just a replacement candidate but the actual officeholder, which is even less democratic than the placeholder practice. Translation: Senator Brown isn't fighting for democracy. He's just fighting Democrats.

Senate Bill 69 and its companion bills SB 67 and SB 68 weren't perfect when introduced, but I was willing to support them, assuming we could make some changes that would protect the integrity of the petition process without suppressing citizen participation. Alas, today's Senate State Affairs Committee action shows the Republican majority would rather kick people out of the electoral process. Unless legislators can snuff out this malicious intent and return to serving the public interest with these bills, the petition reform package should be killed.

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The GOP spin machine uses false fears about animal rights activists to reheat his patron Senator Dan Lederman's proposal to ban paid petition circulators. What's the real game here? Weakening Democrats and democracy.

Read Powers's brilliant Newspeak:

Our State pioneered the initiative and referendum process. South Dakota was the first state to adopt initiative and referendum on a statewide level, and did so in 1898, setting an example for the rest of the country. But when we did so, it was about a personal, street level democracy. The system didn’t envision people collecting signatures for a profit. Ballot measures (and for running for office) should be about the ideals of Democracy. Not about which special interest group has deep pockets to pay circulators.

It’s time for paid signature collectors to go. And it would be a great step by the incoming legislature to make it happen [Pat Powers, "Animal Rights Groups Looking at State Ballot Measures. It’s Time to End Paid Petition Circulators," Dakota War College, 2014.12.22].

(Bonus points if you snicker at anti-nanny-state Powers reverently capitalizing State.)

Powers pretends to be a friend of democracy. He really fears it, because he knows the South Dakota Democratic Party's most effective tool against his party's agenda in the last two election cycles has been direct democracy, initiative and referendum. Democrats used the referendum to kill bad Republican legislation on education and economic development in 2012. Democrats used the initiative to raise the minimum wage in 2014. Powers and his Republican friends need to weaken that potent Democratic tool any way they can; banning paid circulators is one way to hamstring ballot measure organizers.

Powers conceals his real target by not mentioning any of those successful ballot measures. He focuses on unpopular measures that have made the ballot but gone down in flames under the pencils of the voters. Ballot measures that get killed do not somehow corrupt "the ideals of Democracy" (more ironic capitalization!); they affirm democracy. They affirm that voters can make up their own minds. If Powers sees something wrong there, he only reveals his own lack of faith in the demos.

If Powers were really worried about the corruption of democracy by big money, he'd be railing against the money that comes after the petitions, the unlimited money that corporations can use to promote their candidates and ballot measures through advertising. But when Rick Weiland called for campaign finance reform, Powers responded with nothing but specious topic-changing and ridicule.

In 2007, the South Dakota Legislature banned payment per signature and non-resident circulators with House Bill 1156. Our Democratic friend Nick Nemec supported this bill, as did most Dems in the 2007 Legislature. But notice that legislators did not prohibit themselves from paying per signature, only those dastardly ballot measure folks who would challenge legislators by helping the demos exercise their own direct legislative authority.

Powers also fails to notice that legislators probably went as far as they could with 2007 HB 1156 in limiting paid petition circulation. In its 1988 Meyer v. Grant ruling, the United States Supreme Court unanimously declared that paying petition circulators is First Amendment speech (again, the analogy to Citizens United beckons). The Ninth Circuit 2006 ruling in Prete v. Bradbury allowed limited limits like our no-pay-per-signature law, but Meyer still blocks a full ban on paying petition circulators.

Powers and Lederman are worried about Democrats, not democracy. I don't like paid circulators, either, but banning them is about giving us fewer chances to exercise our right to initiative and refer legislation. Thanks to the First Amendment, the Supreme Court, and the GOP's own embrace of the idea that money equals speech, the proposal will go nowhere.

p.s.: Recall that last July, SDGOP éminence grise Joel Rosenthal poo-pooed Lederman's proposal, saying that paid petitioneering creates jobs. Rosenthal, the classical conservative, said we don't need regulation, just transparency, like big buttons on every paid circulator declaring, "I'm being paid to get your signature!"

pp.s. [11:11 CST]: An eager reader reminds me of this 2009 South Dakota Magazine profile of Father Robert Haire, an Aberdeen priest who advocated for the initiative and referendum in 1891 as a bulwark against plutocracy:

These men make the laws to suit themselves — are a law to themselves. The people seldom get any law passed they want....

Of course, the entire plutocracy, given over to fleecing the values that labor produces, are afraid of the people.... Such fellows will jump on any proposition with both feet when it is proposed to give the law-making power into the hands of the electors.... [T]he people are capable of feeling for, giving form to, and finally decreeing their own laws [Father Robert Haire, Dakota Ruralist, 1891, quoted in Patrick Gallagher, "Faith in the Voters," South Dakota Magazine, originally published Sep/Oct 2009, revised and republished online 2014].

I wonder: would Father Haire see plutocracy afoot in paid circulators or in efforts to ban them?

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Public votes always get a cheer from this small-d democrat. The latest outbreak of direct democracy happens in Rapid City, where petitioners say they have gathered over 2,700 signatures, nearly 700 more than necessary, to put the city's financing of an expansion of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to a vote.

Petitioner Pro Tip #8: Paste your issue in big letters on the back of your clipboard! Excellent idea, Don! (Screen cap from Jack Caudill, "Organizer Says Civic Center Petition Drive off to Good Start," KEVN, 2014.12.11.)

Petitioner Pro Tip #8: Paste your issue in big letters on the back of your clipboard! Excellent idea, Don! (Screen cap from Jack Caudill, "Organizer Says Civic Center Petition Drive off to Good Start," KEVN, 2014.12.11.)

Referendum petitions usually come from opponents of government decisions. But the Civic Center petitioners include some of the biggest supporters of Rapid City's Rushmore Plaza expansion plan. Civic Center board member Don Frankenfeld (shall we emphasize Don?) spearheaded the petition drive, distributing the first petitions the same night that the city council approved the expansion. Mayor Sam Kooiker voted for the expansion in council on December 1, then gathered about 400 signatures:

Kooiker said he found it easy to gather signatures because just about everyone he encountered thought a public vote would be in Rapid City's best interest.

"Everyone on both sides wants this vote," he said.

"People have asked me if I think this project is too big," he said. "I tell them, 'Yes, it's too big for today, but it's not too big for tomorrow.' This is an investment in the future" [Scott Feldman, "Mayor: Petition Collects Enough Signatures, Civic Center Will Be Voted On," Rapid City Journal, 2014.12.26].

Former councilman Jordan Mason was taking the city to court over alleged technical violations of law in passage of the expansion plan, but Mason withdrew that court challenge earlier this month, apparently to make way for the referendum.

Former councilman Ron Sasso agrees that the $180-million project should be put to a public vote. However, Sasso has written that Rapid City should spend five years catching up on improving roads before investing in a Civic Center upgrade.

Whether the expansion plan survives referendum or not, Rapid City has to do something. The Barnett Arena in the Civic Center violates the Americans with Disabilities Act; in October, the city signed an agreement with the Justice Department to rectify those 402 ADA violations within 30 months. So, Rapid City, you can vote against the expansion plan, but you can't vote to do nothing.

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Speaking of religious apocalypticists steering our politics, South Dakota's leading theocracy advocates (Perry Groten calls them a "social advocacy nonprofit"—come on, Perry!) are calling on Christians to keep keno, craps, and roulette from wrecking the Redeemer's return:

A social advocacy nonprofit will lobby against a measure in the upcoming legislative session to authorize three new voter-approved games in Deadwood and at tribal casinos.

Family Heritage Alliance Action executive director Dale Bartscher says the group's board unanimously agreed this month to oppose the legislation.

He says the organization will be urging lawmakers in January not to authorize the new games, which 57 percent of voters supported as part of Amendment Q on Nov. 4 [Perry, Groten, "Non-Profit to Lobby Against New Deadwood Gaming," KELOLand.com, 2014.12.13].

Good grief! What part of "The voters have spoken" do you Republicans not understand? We pass an initiative to raise the minimum wage, and you Republicans rumble about overturning it in the Legislature. We approve diversifying the games with which people can entertain themselves in Deadwood, and you Republicans (show of hands: how many Democrats belong to the political arm of Family Heritage Alliance? how many FHAA folks were lobbying their churchmates to vote for Democrats?) decide you'll sabotage the necessary enacting legislation.

I do appreciate FHAA's willingness to buck the free-market fundamentalism which they erroneously conflate with Christianity and get back to basics on this issue. Here's their pre-election statement against the constitutional amendment that was on the 2014 ballot:

Whereas in most cases, free market should be the primary regulator of business, in the case of an industry that generates so much addiction, societal ills, and even suicide, this should not be the case regarding the gambling industry. For instance, The National Council on Problem Gaming (NCPG) estimates that among South Dakotans, there are 18,000 adult gambling addictions which inflicts on the citizens of the state a whopping annual cost of almost $16 million. The NCPG also estimates that one in five problem gamblers will attempt suicide, putting this statistic at about twice the suicide rate of other addictions [Family Heritage Alliance Action, statement on Amendment Q, 2014.08.26].

I voted against craps, keno, and roulette myself. But the voters have spoken, and 56.69% of them said let Deadwood's casino industry do its thing. If the Legislature won't respect the voters' decision, it will respect the Deadwood casino lobby.

On the upside, we will get to witness the amusing spectacle of the Family Heritage Alliance casting its gentle Jesus against the state's true god, Mammon.

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My blog friend John Tsitrian picks up on the Oligarchy not a Democracy study and says, No big deal:

CNBC's Robert Frank writes a nice critique and analysis of the study I reference and calls attention to the fact that for every right wing rich guy promoting schemes that Democrats abhor, there's probably a wealthy leftie advocating the opposite. As Frank notes, for every Koch there's a Buffett. I'd add that for every George Soros there's a Sheldon Adelson--and I'd probably be able to match Big Rich Lib with Big Rich Rightie for as long as necessary to make the point. Weiland's mentor Tom Daschle generally raised millions for his senatorial campaigns here in South Dakota and I don't recall Weiland or any other Democrats bemoaning the influence of Big Money when it suited their party's purposes back then. So what changed? Just the fact that Weiland hasn't been able to scare up 7-figure totals for his campaign now is about all I can see [John Tsitrian, "The Problem with Populism, Rick Weiland Style," The Constant Commoner, 2014.04.22].

Frank's critique rests on a lot of always:

  • "...it's misleading to say the wealthy always get what they want
  • "Our evidence does not indicate that in U.S. policymaking, the average citizen always loses out."
  • "But the notion of the rich always shaping policies at the expense of the rest of the country is simply misleading."
  • "...what [the rich] want is not always so different from the rest of America."

That response to charges of oligarchy drowning democracy is somewhat like saying evolution doesn't happen because less well-adapted organisms don't always miss out on the chance to reproduce. Sure, slow frogs get to lay eggs, too, but over time, more slow frogs get eaten, and fast frogs dominate the frogosphere.

Saying that rich people don't always win or even that there are rich people with competing interests (and I'd like a breakdown of how often the Soroses and Steyers beat the Kochs and Adelsons) does not change the fundamental critique that the interests of the vast majority of Americans either are not being heard or at best are only heard coincidentally. I don't want coincidental democracy. I don't want oligarchy masquerading as democracy. I want honest, functional democracy, where voices are heard and decisions are made by head count, not bank account.

 

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