MERCER: Legislature might be better after review
PIERRE — The 2014 session of the Legislature that opens Jan. 14 will be the first since the outside review was conducted last summer.
The mood definitely is different. On the day the report was publicly delivered, the staff director, Jim Fry, resigned after 13 years. Emotions have smoothed since then on the Legislative Research Council staff.
The dialogue and interaction between top staff and top legislators became much more open. The job description for Fry’s permanent successor is still being drawn and the hiring of a recruiting firm is still under consideration. The Legislature will go into the session instead with an interim director at the head of its staff.
Fred Schoenfeld, the former chief of the fiscal staff, was planning to retire altogether in 2014 when he was unexpectedly tapped to fill the director’s chair on a temporary basis. His ascension meant a promotion of Annie Mehlhaff to fiscal chief.
She’s brought suggestions intended to address some of the perceptions regarding budget matters that the Legislature is too dependent on the governor’s Bureau of Finance and Management. The openness shown by Schoenfeld and Mehlhaff extends from other senior members of the LRC staff too, such as senior research and legal analyst Reuben Bezpaletz and code counsel Doug Decker.
Decker previously was legal counsel for the state Bureau of Personnel. He’s been working on a major revision of the LRC personnel policy.
The outside review found personnel matters lost importance in the past decade.
Overall the review called for more direct interaction between LRC staff and legislators year-round. LRC staff now will be allowed to provide analysis in closed caucus meetings upon request. This was previously prohibited to preserve non-partisanship among staff.
The review concluded term limits are at the heart of much of the dissatisfaction. LRC staff in caucuses is one step in meeting the desire by legislators for more help.
The 2014 session’s first Senate bill is the top reform recommended from that review, which was conducted by staff for the National Conference of State Legislatures. SB 1 calls for South Dakota to take a page from Kansas in establishing a unified form of management for the Legislature and the LRC staff.
South Dakota has used a split system. The House speaker and the Senate president pro tem — currently Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, and Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg — manage matters during session. During the nine months between sessions, management is by a 15-member Executive Board, with six senators and seven representatives chosen by their partisan caucuses in each chamber. The House speaker and the Senate president pro tem get automatic seats. The board members select a chairman and a vice chairman to serve a two-year term.
SB 1 calls for change. The House speaker and the Senate president pro tem would alternate as chairman and vice chairman, one year apiece, starting Jan. 1, 2015. The board recommended this. The current chair, Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, is prime sponsor. Lead House sponsor is the current vice-chair, Rep. Lance Carson, R-Mitchell.
The board’s decision last spring to seek the review took courage. Results so far seem positive.