Press "Enter" to skip to content

Improve Democracy: Convene Legislature on National Guard Schedule

Last updated on 2013.02.19

So my wife and I were discussing the South Dakota Legislature and civic engagement over dinner last night. One thing led to another, and by the time we were done with our tuna pasta, we'd come up with a plan to make South Dakota democracy even better: turn our legislators into weekend warriors.

Right now, the South Dakota Legislature meets for up to 40 days packed into the winter. This year's session calendar was originally 35 days, which got knocked down to 33 for Janklow's funeral. Some legislatures meet for fewer days. North Dakota, Montana, Nevada, and Texas convene their legislatures only every other year. Some states, like Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, and Nebraska, go for longer sessions.

Under the current system, things move fast. Bills like HB 1234, the Governor's destructive education reform bill, get revised in closed-door sessions by small all-Republican committees, then thrown up for committee testimony and vote the very next day. Opponents have little chance to review the new bill text, conduct further research, and bring information relevant to the policy changes to the hearing. The Legislature races along, making it hard for citizens to mobilize to oppose or support bills.

The current condensed winter schedule also makes it hard for many workers to serve. Wealthy Establishment members like Senate Majority Leader Russell Olson can get their well-heeled employers to give them two months off each winter to spend their time lobbying for their special interests. But most employees can't take that big block of time off. Teachers like me can hardly take two straight months off from the classroom.

So what would happen if we changed our Legislature's calendar thus:

  1. The Legislature meets one weekend a month for ten months, January to October.
  2. The weekend meetings last three days, coinciding where possible with three-day weekend holidays.
  3. Legislators meet for an additional one- or two-week session at some point during the year.

That schedule would give us the same 35 or 40 legislative days that we currently have. But it would produce several advantages:

  1. Legislators and the public would have more time to research, discuss, and mobilize support or opposition to legislation. A bill might be proposed in February, pass House committee in March, get House approval in April... that's a lot of time for folks to look at bills and amendments and contact their legislators.
  2. Weekend sessions make it easier for more citizens to go to Pierre and testify and lobby without missing work.
  3. More people could feasibly serve in the Legislature. Consider me: I can cover one Friday or Monday a month with personal leave. I can much more easily prepare substitute lesson plans for such periodic absences than I can for two straight months. Other workers would be much better able to keep up with the demands of work given such occasional absences than now when they come back to the home office in March and tackle the two-month mountain of work that accumulated while they were in Pierre.
  4. Legislative discussions carry on right into September and October, leaving votes in Pierre fresh in the voters' minds as they had to the polls in November.
  5. Legislators only make two or three winter drives to Pierre.
  6. Special sessions become less necessary. If some special circumstance arises, legislators take it up in the course of normal business at the next monthly meeting.
  7. The economic boost to Pierre gets spread out over the entire year instead of one hectic rush in winter.

The plan has complications. If we stick with a fiscal year starting on July 1, we'll need to focus the first few months on hammering out a budget and save muskrat hunting and abortion nuttiness for the summer and fall. And asking legislators to give up weekends is a sacrifice... but arguably no harder than the current demands.

So who's up for making our legislators into weekend warriors?


  1. Maria 2012.02.10

    Something needs to be done about how the legislative year is structured. It is impossible for most constituents to effectively participate in the process. Those who say otherwise are shoveling manure.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.10

    Maria, would you and your neighbors be better able to follow and participate in legislative activity if we went to the National Guard schedule?

  3. larry kurtz 2012.02.10

    "Just picked up 2 rubber fetuses at #cpac. They're jiggly:" conference-goer.

  4. Bill Fleming 2012.02.10

    It's a really good idea, Cory. There would be a lot more people interested in being a candidate, and as a result, a far more different type of legislator elected in many, if not most cases. I would consider running, for example.

  5. Michael Black 2012.02.10

    This is a very bad idea. The legislature's primary job is to pass a budget. They wait to do that until the very last day every year. As teachers have found out: no one is safe while the legislature is in session.

    We really need to put the state on a 5 to 10 year budget plan. We have to do it in business so why shouldn't government work the same way? It is the fiscally responsible thing to do.

  6. larry kurtz 2012.02.10

    What blows my mind is that South Dakotans keep putting earth haters in charge of the legislature then complain when they raise money just to spend money as they chill civil liberties for poor people.

  7. Robert J. Cordts 2012.02.10

    We should move the legislative session to the summer so more teachers run for office. We should also lower the voting age to 16 since education seems to be a major issue for the legislature every year.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.10

    Summer is a lovely time in Pierre, isn't it, Robert? I think we'd have to do some work to get some of the 16-year-olds I know ready to vote informedly... but that shouldn't be much harder than educating the general public. Those 16-year-olds might be more receptive to common sense.

    Michael, I didn't catch which part of your comment explains why this is a bad idea. As a matter of fact, the 5-10 year budget you propose could make a spread-out session more feasible and desirable: instead of rushing the budget the last day, we could spread the work, research, and public deliberation over the months.

    Of course, none of that public deliberation can take place on Russell Olson's Facebook page....

  9. JohnKelley 2012.02.10

    Good ideas, Cory. Limiting the legislative session to agriculture's "dead season" is so 19th century. Add to the mix to drop our dysfunctional legislature and excessive legislators for a unicameral of 25-35. We are not getting our money's worth by any measure. Nebraska's non-partisan, unicameral provides competent legislative services to a million more citizens than has South Dakota - and its done with 49 legislators.

  10. Bill Dithmer 2012.02.10

    Im just curious, is there still such a thing as civics class, social studies, and government class? Don't make fun of me because Im so far removed from school that I don't know. I still have all three books and look at them once in a while.

    The Blindman

  11. Michael Black 2012.02.10

    Cory, why do we need legislators to spend all year introducing unnecessary bills?

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.11

    John, I wonder: would it be a reasonable trade-off to cut the number of legislators in half, but double their pay so that more working folks could afford to sacrifice their work and family time to serve in Pierre?

    Michael, it's not about "spending all year" making mischief. They spend 35-40 days write now making mischief. I want to spread those days out so we have more time to study that mischief, deliberate, lobby, campaign, and counteract the concentrated groupthink they experience in the Pierre pressure cooker.

    Bill, yes, we do still teach government. Spearfish has an excellent government instructor, Pat Gainey. Alas, the state requires students to spend just one semester studying the Democracy Operator's Manual.

  13. Michael Black 2012.02.11

    We don't need the legislature to be in session more than 25 days in my opinion. They need to pass a budget...period. I don't see an overwhelming need for the endless parade of needless legislation. We might need minor course corrections each year. Right now we have legislators trying to justify their existence by wasting time and energy proposing laws that aren't necessary to everyday life.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.11

    If a plan puts Bill Fleming on the ballot, I'm all for it!

    Michael, fine: 40 days, 25 days, whatever. What's wrong with spreading out those days to give us more time to study and respond to the legislation proposed and rally the opposition to kill the needless legislation?

Comments are closed.