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Too Much Democracy in Initiated Measure 15… or Not Enough?

Last updated on 2013.02.03

I've posted a new column at South Dakota Magazine on Initiated Measure 15. The extra-penny sales tax (or, as Steve Sibson would prefer I label it, the 180-million-dollar tax increase) continues to delay the completion of the ballot sitting on my desk. I'm still weighing the multi-faceted arguments for and against it.

One rather abstract argument I've heard is that taxing and budgeting by popular vote is a bad idea. Some IM15 opponents, in an apparent embrace of anti-democratic elitism, contend that the budget is strictly the purview of the Legislature and that we should not circumvent the wise decision-making of our reps in Pierre.

Practically, for 95% of voters, this argument seems like a non-starter. Most folks don't care about the process; they care about the direct costs and benefits of the tax. Show voters the last-minute, slap-dash budget process that harries our legislators after a long session of free drinks and buffets and debates over abortion, guns, astrology, and varmint hunting, and I don't think you'll convince them that the Legislature operates any more rationally than the ballot initiative.

One possible justification for the process argument arose at our dinner table last night. We were debating my sticking point on IM15, whether we can justify funding worthy programs with a regressive tax. I could vote for IM15 more easily if I could be assured that the Legislature would ease the regressive burden by repealing the sales tax on the salad I was enjoying and other groceries. In a normal legislative process, we could wheel and deal like that. We'd go through committees, we could amend the bill as good ideas come up, and we could trade votes and build coalitions to craft a total legislative package that would work well. In the initiative process, we get one bill, immutable language, and one up-or-down vote. If it isn't written right the first time, it goes down, and we don't get a chance to vote on an improved version until the next general election... assuming we can round up another 16,000 signatures to put it on the ballot.

Legislating by initiative is not easy. Initiatives leave out the opportunity for amendment and compromise. But there is such a thing as participatory budgeting, where citizens help craft public budgets. The Internet makes participatory budgeting doable, if we have faith that the people we trust to elect legislators can also be trusted to with decisions about how to spend their tax dollars.

Opponents to Initiated Measure 15 contend that the initiative process is too democratic, that budget decisions belong in the hands of the higher-ups, not the people. I contend that the initiative process is not democratic enough. The initiative empowers the people to exercise limited legislative powers to propose and enact legislation. We should use the Internet to expand those legislative powers to allow citizens to formally discuss and amend legislation before casting the final vote in November. Such a participatory process would allow those of us with concerns about IM15 to propose changes like exemptions on food or other necessities that could make the legislation more palatable to a majority of voters and more effective in serving the needs of South Dakota.

But again, that's a discussion of process, not the merits of IM15 itself.


  1. Steve Hickey 2012.10.18

    Ask around, how much of that $90 million will be set aside in a lockbox and earmarked for teacher wages? None. We hope it might, but history says it will be negligible. No guarantee that teacher pay will go up one penny with IM15. What is guaranteed is that low income earners (teachers included) will pay hundreds more a year per South Dakota household so that what, large non-profit hospitals can get some relief? The patients also won't see smaller medical bills is IM15 is passed.

    Teachers need a pay increase, not a tax increase.

    So Cory, it's easy... vote no.

  2. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    "Opponents to Initiated Measure 15 contend that the initiative process is too democratic, that budget decisions belong in the hands of the higher-ups, not the people."

    Not all opponents are on that point, only the lobbyists who control the legislative process. This opponent understands that there is already plenty of reveneu as evidenced by the $47 million surplus that went into reserves. It would have been higher if the governemnt employees did not get bonuses and pay increases, Manpower did not get a contract to recruit labor, and $8 million did not go to indoctrinating teachers with UNESCO's Common Core Standards.

    Mr. Hickey is correct, IM15 takes money away from the citizens, which is how we vote in the economic system, and give it to the corrupt system in Pierre. Most of the money will not come back to the teachers, not benefit students, and not benefit anybody's healthcare. Most of it will end up in the pockets of those who fund the SDGOP candidates, can afford lobbyists, and who believe they should be worshipped because they give us our jobs.

  3. Ken Santema 2012.10.18

    Interesting post. I will continue to stand opposed to IM15 due to the extra burden it puts on South Dakota families. The too much democracy argument seems odd. I think if nothing else the legislative branch (OK, and the other two as well) don't have enough oversight and input from the actual citizens they are working for. Your more-interactive democracy has a lot of merit. I've seen legislatures in other states that have blog posts for each bill they are working on to get feedback from constituents. Its not the same thing as you mention, but its a start.

  4. Jeremiah M. Murphy 2012.10.18

    The legislature and the legislative process are easy targets for caricature. Talk about "higher ups" and "free drinks" and voila! You've completely distorted how the South Dakota legislature works.

    I'm an opponent to Initiated Measure 15 not because the initiative process is too democratic. And not because budget decisions belong in the hands of the "higher-ups, not the people".

    Rather I believe budget decisions belong in the hands of the 105 South Dakota people who spend the substantial time and resources required to seek office and serve in our state's legislature. And I believe budget decisions belong in the hands of the constituents of those legislators who make their views known to their representatives.

    Winning a seat in the state legislature is not akin to a lottery ticket to forty days and nights of feast and festival. It's a ticket to hours of committee hearings, caucuses, and floor debate. Hours spent trying to learn and decide the best policies for our criminal and civil codes and learning and choosing the best sources and uses for tax dollars paid by South Dakotans.

    Our state legislature is not a cloistered nor a regal body. We already have the participatory process Cory seeks. It is a transparent and dynamic process that is open and responsive to all who choose to participate.

    All bills are heard and all hearings are open to testimony from anyone. I'm a contract lobbyist. I represent corporations, associations of South Dakota businesses and families, social service agencies, and occasionally I'll take off my client's badge and speak to legislation as a citizen. Most South Dakota citizens and businesses are so represented in Pierre by contract lobbyists, association executives, and citizen lobbyists.

    But, South Dakotans don't need to hire a lobbyist, belong to an association, or drive to Pierre to be involved in and impact the legislative process. We already use the Internet to broadcast committee hearings and floor sessions and so broaden the reach of legislative hearings to virtually anyone with a phone line. Every weekend legislators return home and participate with their constituents in the give-and take of cracker-barrel sessions. Legislators receive information from and are influenced by the cracker-barrels as well as by calls, emails, faxes, and posted mail.

    I don't oppose the initiative process as a rule. I oppose it when it's used to circumvent our dynamic and responsive legislative process.

    I think the best use of the initiative is as a guard against a non-responsive legislature.

    Had IM15 been debated by our citizen legislature in Pierre and in legislative races and at cracker-barrels, not as a bumper sticker notion of a painless penny, but rather on the details of a plan to impose a permanent $180 million tax to correct a $77 million shortfall, we might have crafted an alternative solution to the budget shortfalls we're currently experiencing through a process of debate and amendment. Or, the legislature may have rejected such a plan.

    After such legislative debate I think, is when we are best served by the initiative process. That process of legislation before initiative would have led to a more informed debate on a dramatic change to our tax and budget policies. It would have led to a more informed electorate voting on a resulting initiated measure.

    So I say exercise your rights in our democracy and vote "NO" on IM15.

    Then, if you support this tax and earmarking proposal, urge your legislative representatives to sponsor such a bill in January and let's have that debate.

    Right or wrong, IM15 requires a more careful and thorough debate and analysis than is possible in an up or down vote.

  5. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    "but rather on the details of a plan to impose a permanent $180 million tax to correct a $77 million shortfall"

    There is no $77 million shortfall, after increasing the FY12 budget during the legisaltive process last session by tens of millions, we still had $47 million left over. How many people who will vote on IM15 will know that? What percentage? Anybody want to guess?

    Jeremiah, how can citizens, legislators, and lobbyists put together a budget when they have no idea what the numbers are and what they mean? The pre-Obama state budget was just over $3 Billion, and now it is $4 Billion. And we want to take $180 million out of our pockets and sent that to Pierre too? The most efficient process in voting is the free market. Keep the money in your pocket and vote that way. With all due repect to Jeremiah, the legislative process is broken. When you have committee decision made up before the hearing is held, and when the decisions include who is promoting the bill (South Dakota Gun Owners), and not on the merits of the bill, then the citizens lose. Too bad they don't know it.

  6. Charlie Hoffman 2012.10.18

    Jeremiah you just earned a ton more respect from me by eloquently stating the main reason to vote against IM 15.

    And Steve the only broken losers in your above diatribe are the folks who believe that the "SD Gun Owners" gain legislative trust by busting up church meetings to hand out hate mail of nefarious intent.

  7. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    Yes Charlie, you support the blacklisting of citizen lobbyists who expose the voting record of legislators to their constituents. Funny that a church did not appreciate their members learning who the supporters of sexual immorality are.

  8. Charlie Hoffman 2012.10.18

    Sorry you feel that way Steve. The crux of the matter is how the information was disseminated and portrayed within the published material. I have no problem with anyone putting out the list of folks Governor Daugaard publicly backed in the primary. But singling out one or more personal beliefs of any individual as the focus of the person backing same is complete blashphemy. You know it, I know it, and everyone who read the literature knows it. Steve you are not that stupid or bad of a guy to have so much pent up hate for anyone. Anger never wins in South Dakota.

  9. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    "Anger never wins in South Dakota."

    Sorry Charlie, but the anger rests on the actions of those who are doing the blacklisting. The document I saw was factually correct and told the truth. It is past time for conservatives to wake up and understand they are being played for fools by abandoning their principles in order the play the game of pragmatism.

  10. Stan Gibilisco 2012.10.18

    I'd vote yes on IM15 if it included an exemption for groceries and perhaps certain other essentials.

    As things now stand, I'll vote no. I do not trust the legislature to direct the money to education and Medicaid long-term.

    And as a couple of people have pointed out, there's no way to know that anything will go toward increasing teacher salaries, a real bad spot in this state.

    Use the Internet to serve as a forum for molding or amending initiated measures? Something about that idea makes me nervous, indeed. First off, it would favor those with good Internet access over those without. Then too, if we start letting the people take over legislative processes, where will it end? Why not just abolish the legislature altogether and have one big public Webfest to cook up our laws? First dibs to those whose speeds exceed 10 Mbps ... Noooo...

    As for IM15 winning 67 to 30 percent in the dakota poll cited a day or two ago, I can only offer the following ...

    Polls, schmolls.

  11. Steve Hickey 2012.10.18

    Sibby - I can appreciate that you feel blacklisted. There is no list. But it surely feels that way to you - blocked from blogs, scorned by or not taken seriously by elected officials, etc. Some of that is real, some is perceived by you. What have you sown to reap these things? Accusations, saying things not true, wild theories and relentless references to stuff most consider fringe (new world order, etc). We share many things in common with our views on politics and religion but respect is earned and being reasonable is a minimum requirement to getting people to listen to you. Hope that helps. And btw, the only blacklists I've seen are the ones being broadcast by the self appointed party platform purity police-- aren't you in that club? ;-)

  12. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    Steve, there was admissions in committee made by a legislators that the South Dakota Gun Owners are blacklisted. Not suprised that you would be participating in the efforts to marginalize me, based on false accusations. You would probably be among those religious leaders that considered Jesus Christ to be fringe back in the day. Calling those who are holding legislators accountable to their voting "the purity police" shows your true colors. You are part of the SDGOP Gestapo. But you gotta do what you gotta do to be considered winsome. I would rather be crucified than sell my soul.

  13. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    Larry, don't be cooking anything in that cracked pot.

  14. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    "Accusations, saying things not true, wild theories and relentless references to stuff most consider fringe (new world order, etc)."

    So Steve, ever though of the possiblity that the NWO is the beast of Revelation and you are helping set it up?

  15. Joe 2012.10.18

    Is it really a $180 million tax increase? I'm just wondering how many local opt-outs won't be renewed and how that will off-set it.

    I'll agree that if Pierre could get their act together and pass a fair budget that this wouldn't be needed, but for the past 10 years where we grew education at a slower rate then the rest of government in good years, and cut it at a larger rate or same rate in bad years made this a necessity.

    Do some local school districts spend money foolishly? yes no doubt about it, but for every one of those examples I can find you 5+ where they didn't, and still had to forgo raises, cut additional staff, and still had to go ask for an opt out.

  16. Steve Hickey 2012.10.18

    Sibster - the scorecard percentages aren't based on my votes, they are based on your subjective interpretations. You keep tossing my winsome remark back at me and so I can see you resent it. Sorry, bud. GOP Gestopo? Give it a rest. Check out my podcasts sometime and see what I have to say about Revelation.

  17. larry kurtz 2012.10.18

    and jesus said: please form a line to touch my garment. $10.

  18. Justin 2012.10.18

    Our legislature is the most incompetent in the nation and has more disdain for the opinions of its people than any other state. Witness the fervent continued desire to fight Roe vs Wade and ban abortions when the people have shown they oppose this by expanding margins in two ballot initiative votes.

    I say get rid of the corrupt lot altogether and turn every decision over to a statewide referendum.

  19. grudznick 2012.10.18

    Mr. Justin has a good idea.

  20. Steve Sibson 2012.10.18

    "Sibster - the scorecard percentages aren't based on my votes, they are based on your subjective interpretations."

    Steve, did you have a chance to provide your subjective interpretation?

  21. grudznick 2012.10.18

    Mr. Sibby, your man Nelson scored amongst the least effective legislatures in SD for 2012 in the Conservatives with Common Sense Legislature Effectiveness Scores. He got terrible scores in "People Skills" and "Meaningful Bills." Two different categories they just happen to rhyme.

    My question is do you think he does better this year if he wins election again?

  22. Kathy Tyler 2012.10.18

    To stay on the topic: This bill helps kids and old people. I have reservations also. The legislature has done nothing to help fund education during the past three years. I applaud the group, and it's not teachers, that started and promoted this referendum. They care. If the legislature won't do what's right, then it's up to the people. In my eternal optimism, I would like to see it pass, the legislature finally realize that education is important, and then start funding it through revenue streams other than sales tax...or maybe remove the sales tax on food? The legislature can do whatever it wants to with this bill if it passes; and face it, our legislature is not one that does the will of the people very often. Pass it, get Medicaid and the schools back to 2008, and then fix funding legislatively.

  23. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.18

    With sincere respect to Mr. Murphy, who has worked harder in Pierre than I likely ever will, I highlight one phrase from his sensible epistle: "a transparent and dynamic process." Can we really apply that statement to a budget process that gets rushed to completion in the last days of each session, with obscurity if not outright secrecy and a timeline that make it difficult for interested citizens to study the numbers and offer their legislators informed advice?

    In addition to the shortcomings Mr. Murphy and I agree one, the initiative process lacks transparency in the writing of the bill before us. But IM15 offers more transparency and participation in that we all have time to study it and make our decision. If we could couple that with an online public hearing and amendment process (and I know some social media guys who could wire that up in a couple days), wouldn't we have a budgeting process with at least as much integrity and clearly more public participation than the usual decisions in Pierre?

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.18

    Joe: yes. $182 million, actually. It is a 25% increase in the state sales tax. The $91 million going to K-12 would represent a 26% increase over state aid to K-12 ed in the FY2012 budget.

  25. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.18

    Justin: every decision by statewide referendum? That's a scary leap of democratic faith. But in the 21st century, it's also doable.

  26. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.18

    Kathy, I am intrigued by the possibility of using IM15 as a kick in the pants to make Pierre pass other, better legislation. Dare we?

  27. Kathy Tyler 2012.10.18

    Like I said, I'm the eternal optimist and definitely willling to fight for it..really hard. But please "Don't confuse rhetorical passion for effectiveness" !!

  28. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.18

    The two are not mutually exclusive, Kathy. I happen to believe in the bully pulpit. Keep fighting!

  29. Justin 2012.10.18

    I agree it is doable, Cory. It may sound radical, but the technology is there. Our legislators only work a standard 10 day session and the amount of expense we incur for that is enormous.

    I am also for an abolishment of the electoral college in the federal executive branch. These are archaic ideas.

    With all the technological innovation we have had, our democracy is far behind in modernization.

    There are problems with our staking ourselves to populism, mainly the discrimination of minorities through popular vote. However, since we are tied to it, let's at least make sure our populism is accurately measured. We have the ability to vote from home now which eliminates voter turnout inequality. It also neutralizes corporate influence since we have privacy in individual ballots. Legislative bribery is bolstered by the public nature of legislative voting. It is impossible to effectively buy a secret ballot of every conscientious voter.

    This is the best reform to counter corporate bribery of public officials. It is the future of a truly democratic process. Corporate PACs see this as a HUGE THREAT, which is enough evidence that it is a great opportunity to preserve our free democracy.

  30. Les 2012.10.18

    A ten dollar chip implant and we can vote from any WAN, LAN or

  31. Les 2012.10.18

    But wouldn't that be what Texas wants?

  32. Les 2012.10.18

    Back on topic, I can't believe for a minute the number of people with this blind faith in a system that has proven itself unworthy of trust.

    I don't care what the initiative might look like, it will end up no differently than the legislature taking money from the aero fund,"it's not right but we have the authority to do that Les" for the underground lab. I support the lab, but not with my registration and fuel tax designed to match federal airport improvement grants at a 90 cent return on every 10 cent we spend.

    Can you beat that logic?

    Now on a blog that apparently hosts some of the most educated and intelligent folks in SD, I see support for the most regressive tax we could possibly impose.

    Bless you all for your wonderful concern for the least of us.

  33. Justin 2012.10.18

    South Dakota already has perhaps the most regressive tax scheme in the nation. If you don't support an income tax to replace sales tax and reduce property tax you already support regressive taxation. If you support the Romney/Ryan plan to abolish capital gains tax, you support making our already regressive federal tax scheme more regressive. If you support repealing ACA, which finally makes "unearned income" subject to only 25% of the level of FICA tax that working people and businesses pay on wages, you support a regressive tax structure.

    Wake up SD, and look at reality. We have the lowest tax rates in modern history and the most regressive at the top end. Studies have shown that over 60% of the top 1% believe they should pay more in taxes. The fact that a small portion of them convince poor suckers that believe anything their "favorite team" the faux-GOP bribes media tell them is embarrassing. It's also why Kristi Noem's out of state handlers and financiers think we are so stupid that we disdain education and experience.

  34. Bill Fleming 2012.10.19

    Justin good post. As per Mark Twain, "It's easier to fool someone than to convince someone that they have been fooled."

  35. WayneB 2012.10.19

    Listening to the IM15 & RL16 discussion hosted by the Argus yesterday sparked a train of thought I hadn't yet considered; we'd be directly funnelling $90M to local districts, but there's not oversight - no accountability - for how those funds are spent. We the citizenry would have to keep close tabs on our school board, yet it seems voter identification, tracking, and participation in school board elections is pretty minimal.

    While I'd like to support IM15 because I do feel teachers should get better pay, I'm disinclined to support the initiative because I have no assurances any of the funds will actually wind up in the pockets of teachers, rather than helping to build shrines to athletics.

  36. Steve Sibson 2012.10.19

    "My question is do you think he does better this year if he wins election again?"

    Stace will win and he will go to Pierre with more learned skills than he had two years ago. The real question is will the SDGOP Gestapo black list him?

  37. Steve Sibson 2012.10.19

    "If you don't support an income tax to replace sales tax and reduce property tax you already support regressive taxation"

    Regressive taxation, one that does not support the Marxist sin of coveting.

  38. shelly 2012.10.19

    justin, you are right on the mark.

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