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:
- The Legislature meets one weekend a month for ten months, January to October.
- The weekend meetings last three days, coinciding where possible with three-day weekend holidays.
- 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:
- 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.
- Weekend sessions make it easier for more citizens to go to Pierre and testify and lobby without missing work.
- 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.
- 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.
- Legislators only make two or three winter drives to Pierre.
- 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.
- 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?