'Vehicle bills' in SD Legislature bother some
By Nora Hertel
PIERRE (AP) — They're called "vehicle bills": pieces of legislation with little more than a title. They are created by lawmakers to give themselves an option to revive or introduce new legislation beyond the normal deadline for bills to make it out of whichever chamber they start in.
Some advocates of open government say they mean less scrutiny for lawmaking.
"Those bills, while sometimes necessary, overall you see more of them," said David Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association. "It frustrates the public in terms of understanding what's happening."
One top lawmaker defended vehicle bills as a handy tool in a short session where policy may not come together until late.
"You don't know what you don't know until the end of session," said Senate Majority Leader Tim Rave.
Rave, a Republican from Baltic, offered such a bill in late January. The intentionally vague bill read: "In case a title affecting medical services or the ordinary operating expenses of South Dakota is needed to accommodate the legislative process, this bill is being introduced to accomplish that purpose."
Rave said the bill was intended as a vehicle that could be filled in later in case the federal government accepted Gov. Dennis Daugaard's proposal for a partial Medicaid expansion.
The government rejected Daugaard's proposal. In March, another lawmaker grabbed Rave's bill, and it was overhauled in a House committee to create a task force to study autism in the state.
The change prompted lobbyists to object to a lack of discussion on the bill.
"I just want to voice some concerns about moving down this path," Darla Pollman Rodgers of Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield said at the hearing. "It would be problematic if this bill was changed on the floor, and there would be no option for further input."
Bordewyk agreed. A vehicle bill "misses that opportunity for public input," he said.
Emily Shaw, national policy manager with the Sunlight Foundation, said South Dakota isn't the only state to use such a technique.
"In California there's concern over spot bills, which are essentially the same thing," Shaw said. "They're problematic."
Rep. Stace Nelson has vocally opposed empty bills in the House and filed formal protests against their passage.
"They deprive the public of the House committee process," said the Fulton Republican. "They're telling these legislators to vote for an empty bill to find out what they're going to put in it in the future. Who thinks that is an appropriate form of government?"
Rave said it's better to use an empty bill than to replace a fully formed bill with unrelated legislation. And he said bills get debated on the chamber floors and sometimes in conference committees as the differing versions are reconciled.
The bill that turned into the autism task force proposal was discussed in a conference committee, with representatives from the governor's office and the health care industry present. But no members of the public testified and the hearing wasn't broadcast or recorded as other hearings are.
Conference committees are announced with often less than a day's notice.
House Minority Leader Bernie Hunhoff takes a pragmatic view of vehicle bills. The Yankton Democrat, who often supports open government measures, said they could be used for ill, but they're not.
"Usually vehicle bills are laying out there because there's an uncertainty about the dollar amount or we're waiting for some information," Hunhoff said. "Usually they're well intentioned."