WOSTER: Reporters in action, or inaction, at the CapitolHaving been away from reporting on the South Dakota Legislature for a couple of sessions now, I know two things for sure.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Having been away from reporting on the South Dakota Legislature for a couple of sessions now, I know two things for sure.
I managed to cover 40 lawmaking sessions before I retired because I knew how to mark time, tread water, kick back or whatever you want to call hanging around waiting for action. One of the long-standing jokes in the Capitol press room went like this:
“Hey, the senior government class from (insert any South Dakota school district) is here to watch the Legislature in action.’’
“That’s nice. In action? Inaction? Is that one word or two?’’
That’s the kind of gag that makes reporters laugh. However, when I started covering the South Dakota Legislature during the 1970 session, the ornate, swinging doors to the press boxes held signs that read “Working Press Only.’’ More than once did a senator or representative pass the press box, see a couple of reporters leaning back and chatting away and ask, “Are you fellows sure you belong here? The sign says ‘Working Press.’ I don’t see a whole lot of work being done.’’
Marking time without becoming frustrated is essential for any reporter who wishes to spend more than a session or two covering the Legislature. The nature of the process means there will be times when scheduled activities don’t start on time, suffer interruptions or fail to take place at all — at least not the day the calendar said they would. Late in a session, negotiating committees and party caucuses can break out just about anywhere, anytime, with absolutely no regard for a reporter’s deadline. To survive in that situation, a reporter learns to mark time without resenting the folks who may be responsible for the delays. The veteran reporters get pretty good at marking time without resentment.
So that’s one thing I know for sure about legislative coverage. It’s part of what allowed me to stay at the task year after year. It isn’t what drew me back from one session to the next, though.
What drew me back was the other thing I know: the array of personalities and characters I found in the chambers, the committees, the lobbies and the hallways of the Capitol every January and February made the place irresistible.
Many issues don’t change. My first session, 1970, legislators argued about property taxes, valuation of farm property and education funding, among many other things. My last session, 2009, those topics were hotly debated, too. The people sent to Pierre by local voters were what made legislative coverage worth going back for seconds, and thirds, and fortieths.
I was reminded of that just last week when I made my one yearly legislative visit to the Capitol building for my department’s budget hearing. One of the first lawmakers I encountered was Sen. Jim Putnam, of Armour. Now, Jim wasn’t in the Legislature when I first started covering politics, but he showed up just a few years later, and we’ve always had a cordial relationship.
After a handshake and some pleasantries, he mentioned the recent death of former Gov. Bill Janklow. That set us to swapping memories of the years when Jim, the governor and I were all in the same building at the same time. There were many years in that span, and there were a lot of memories.
One of the memories caused both Jim and me to laugh out loud. He spoke of the first time Janklow broached the idea of sale-leaseback. That was a financial deal in which the state made money by selling government buildings and leasing them back. Somehow, the buyers made money, too. Both of us recalled that our first thought on hearing the Janklow proposal was, “You’re going to sell WHAT?’’
Sometimes it seemed, especially during the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, that every Janklow State of the State message contained at least two or three “You’re going to do WHAT?’’ moments. Talking with Jim brought back a bunch of those moments, and we I think we both enjoyed remembering them.
I don’t miss being “working press’’ for legislative sessions, but sometimes I miss the moments — and the people.