New Secretary of State Gant off to fast start in PierreNew secretary of state pushing more information, paperwork to the internet.
By: Denise Ross, The Daily Republic
Jason Gant is doing his best to ensure that when his critics take aim, they will not be able to use the well-worn political derision “caretaker.”
South Dakota’s new secretary of state has launched a series of initiatives aimed at putting more public records and paperwork online, and making state government more transparent and easier to access.
South Dakota’s Secretary of State website will soon feature an array of public documents — from the governor’s proclamations to campaign finance reports — as well as forms that businesses must use and a more robust election results reporting system.
Gant calls it his “Open drawer policy for the taxpayers who foot the bill for state government.”
“Being the official recordkeeper of the state, so many documents are filed with our office,” he said. “The sad thing is, most are either put in a binder, a file cabinet or on some shelf. We are moving as fast as we can with as many different areas to get them online, so, should the public want to see an executive proclamation or a campaign finance report, it will be on our website.”
As Gant sees it, South Dakotans shouldn’t have to travel to the state Capitol in Pierre if they want to see a public document. They should be able to log on to the Internet and browse or search.
“Anyone who comes into my office can see all of it. All they have to do is come in and ask,” he said. “They should be able to go to a website and find it right there.”
The 34-year-old Republican and former health insurance executive and consultant has drawn some criticism from the South Dakota Democratic Party, which is now led by the man he defeated in November, Ben Nesselhuf. (See related story.)
During his six years in the South Dakota Senate, Gant gained attention as a champion of open government and ruffled the feathers of some of his fellow officeholders.
His bill in 2006 to accelerate a study of which records and meetings in South Dakota were open or closed under a patchwork of laws and regulations — and which records and meetings were not addressed in law — drew opposition from both the majority and minority leaders in the Senate.
Then-Senate Minority Leader Garry Moore, DYankton, said Gant’s proposal made “absolutely no sense.” And then-Senate Majority Leader Eric Bogue, R-Faith, argued that the bill was unnecessary.
The bill passed and became law. But when Gant introduced a bill that would have required a searchable database of South Dakota’s spending to be placed on the state’s website, then-Gov. Mike Rounds sent his budget chief to testify against the bill. When the Legislature passed the bill, Rounds vetoed it.
When Rounds launched his Open SD initiative (www.open.sd.gov) under pressure in 2008, it provided limited search functionality. For example, users are required to enter the name of a business exactly as it appears in state records if they want to know how much the state might have paid that business. Browsing remains difficult.
South Dakota still lacks a website with Google-like searchability that would allow taxpayers to easily explore how state money gets spent. At the same time, Gant’s bill to provide a searchable website for state contracts earned unanimous legislative support and became law last year.
For his efforts, Gant earned the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s 2007 Eagle Award, which honors open government initiatives.
These days, Gant holds the power to make a whole lot of state government records as accessible as modern technology allows. He promises to post a variety of records on his website (www.sdsos.gov) and then to follow-up by making the site searchable.
So far, Gant has added executive orders, executive proclamations, extraditions, raffle requests and the pistol permit request form to the Secretary of State’s website.
Now, Gant says he gets thanked instead of questioned, and many new to politics wonder why the state’s public records and forms are not already online and searchable.
“When I was in the Legislature, there was pushback when I started talking about open government, but the mood has really changed in the state,” Gant said.
“I’ve only received encouragement. A lot of younger legislators are very excited to be able to file their campaign finance reports online. Younger individuals like the idea of being able to register as a lobbyist online.
“And others who have been around a long time, they’re also coming around. Nobody has said, ‘Jason, stop doing this.’ ”
For all of his open-government work, Gant might have the biggest impact on businesses. As they file their annual reports, businesses now fill out paperwork that arrives in the mail.
Then they mail it back to the Secretary of State’s office in Pierre.
Starting in September, South Dakota businesses will be able to take care of this online with a few keystrokes.
Instead of paperwork, these businesses will receive a postcard with directions on how to complete the process online.
“We’re setting this up so it will be extremely simple to use. We’re taking as much data from the old system as we can and plugging it into the new system,” he said. “Information will already be pre-populated into the form. They can use a credit card or e-check to pay for it, and just like that, they’re done.”
In following years, if there are no changes in a company’s address or ownership, the annual report process will consist of “three clicks,” Gant said.
The system is expected to save his office money, too, he said.
As South Dakota’s chief elections officer, Gant plans to expand the real-time online election reporting system launched by his predecessor, Chris Nelson.
Already a robust tool for anyone wanting to track votes as they are counted in statewide races, Gant plans to use the system for local elections, to improve graphics on the site and to add tools to allow more details to be culled and analyzed.
The system was used in recent school elections in Sioux Falls and Yankton.
“The people deserve this for all elections,” Gant said.
He plans to add data-rich maps that will allow people to “dig down to the precinct level” when analyzing election results.
(Nelson declined to comment when asked about the changes Gant is making to the office.)
Of course, no online push is complete without social media. Gant already reports his activities on Facebook (www.facebook.com/SOSGant) and Twitter (#SOSGant). So far, his YouTube channel offers no videos.
But he used Facebook to promote and talk about his recent appearance on a Sioux Falls talk radio show, and he tweeted the verification process of signatures on a petition putting a new state grant program for large businesses on the 2012 ballot.
“#HB1230 We’re done reviewing signatures. Hold on for the verdict ‘today!’ ” Gant told his Twitter followers.
Gant’s office even has produced a QR code, sort of a new version of a barcode, that takes smartphone users directly to his website.
All this is happening during Gant’s first year in office. He sighs and chuckles before noting that he has big plans for next year, too.
Plans are to launch a new campaign finance reporting system and a new lobbyist registration and reporting system in January.