SD Speaker of the House determines if you're out of linePIERRE — The House of Representatives chamber at the state Capitol is a big box that, by its very design, seems to demand certain behavior. The 70 desks sit in nine sets of rows straight as a ruler. The center row has seven single desks. The other rows contain eight pairs of desks, tight side by side; the exception is the set of far right rows, where there are seven pairs and one single, a function of the need to fit precisely 70.
By: Bob Mercer, The Daily Republic
PIERRE — The House of Representatives chamber at the state Capitol is a big box that, by its very design, seems to demand certain behavior.
The 70 desks sit in nine sets of rows straight as a ruler. The center row has seven single desks. The other rows contain eight pairs of desks, tight side by side; the exception is the set of far right rows, where there are seven pairs and one single, a function of the need to fit precisely 70.
The leaders of the two political parties sit across the back, Democrats Bernie Hunhoff and Mitch Fargen to the farthest left and Republicans David Lust and Justin Cronin to the farthest right.
Overall the seating is such that Democrats occupy 19 seats on the left side of the chamber. Republicans hold 50 seats, filling all four of the right and the center rows, and taking up most of two rows left of center.
The one independent sits smack in the middle of the Republican pack on the right.
Legislators don’t get to choose where they sit. They might be able to pass a word along to influence the decisions made by House Speaker Val Rausch. But they generally will sit as teams, based on political party, and they aren’t allowed to move to a different seat any time they choose.
This is also how the automated voting machine tracks the ayes and nays on roll call votes. Each desk has a pair of buttons, green for yes and red for no.
The clerk, Karen Gerdes, unlocks the voting machine for a roll call only at the direction of the speaker or other presiding officer. She has a screen that shows her who has and hasn’t voted. She calls the names of those who haven’t voted.
If a legislator is on the House floor, the legislator must vote. To avoid voting, they sometimes take a walk, the euphemism for leaving the chamber.
The leaders, because they sit in the back, can look up and down the rows of desk and see which button, red or green, is lit on each legislator’s desk.
Legislators known as whips, essentially the leaders’ lieutenants, in turn can move up and down the rows to urge their assigned whip-group members that the right color be chosen.
The whips also can poke their heads out the doors to see whether a legislator has been sidetracked.
The 70 representatives are truly boxed in. There are only six aisles among those rows of desks, including the two aisles on the far outsides, and they are wide enough for one person to walk through. They also run only between the front and the back.
When the representatives are in their desks, it’s impossible to cut through rows left or right. Getting across requires walking all the way to the front, or all the way to the back.
It is a place, intentional or not, where legislators must face the front and stay in line.
This past week, Speaker Rausch decided that one of the freshmen, Rep. Stace Nelson, had gone too far out of line.
So Rausch, R-Big Stone City, punished Nelson, R-Fulton, by moving him to a different desk. Nelson now sits directly below where the clerk and the speaker stand.
Nelson is a big guy with a big passion for liberty. But he doesn’t seem to have a lot of experience in playing well with others.
Many times in debates he hits harder with his comments than is common in the modern way of legislating. And when he gets hit back by comments from another legislator, he gets offended and comes back harder.
That’s what happened between Nelson and Rep. Nick Moser, R-Yankton, on Tuesday afternoon during an already tense debate over raising court fees for record searches.
Moser made the main pitch for the bill and therefore faced the comments of challengers such as Nelson and Rep. Frank Kloucek, D-Scotland.
Nelson pushed. Moser didn’t give. Kloucek didn’t help when he addressed Moser as the “junior” representative from Yankton County. Moser refused to answer Kloucek’s question.
The bill eventually won enough support, amid some intense vote-switching. But a lot of skin got rubbed raw.
After House members concluded the rest of their business, Nelson went to see Moser a couple desks away in the back row.
Nelson said he had good intentions. But Nelson had stirred a lot of pots in the past 12 months about true Republicanism and political conspiracies.
Some of that came back in the argument that followed, as Nelson said things to Moser, and Moser said some things to Nelson that at least a few other legislators wanted to.
Finally Nelson felt incensed sufficiently to utter words that would cost him.
“Maybe we can talk someday when you get your big-boy pants on,” Nelson says he told Moser.
Things turned worse between them. Nelson, who like many people doesn’t take to being called an idiot, said he then told Moser, “You’re a dumbass.”
And, for further effect, he warned Moser: “Stop the personal attacks in debates or I will return the favor in debates and eat you alive on the floor.”
Others heard somewhat different versions. Rausch looked into it. Nelson came out the loser.
The punishment for the biggest man in the Legislature is that he must sit in the legislative equivalent of hockey’s penalty box. There Rausch will keep watch on his behavior.
Nelson is now front and center. And, it seems, increasingly alone.