MERCER: Two opposites find agreement on a principleSome bills violate South Dakota's constitution, which requires a single subject in each bill, some lawmakers say.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
Principles can make unexpected allies at the Legislature.
The other day, Rep. Larry Lucas made sure to explain to this reporter why he was among six House members who voted against one-time funding bonuses to state employees, Medicaid providers, public schools, the financially troubled retirement fund for former employees of the state-cement plant, Teach For America, and the Ellsworth Air Force Base future-uses panel.
For Lucas, D-Mission, the reason for his no was simple. All of those many millions of dollars were in a single piece of legislation amending the current 2012 state budget. He said it shouldn’t have been.
Under this thinking, which is based on the South Dakota Constitution, Lucas believed the five different subjects should have been in five separate bills. And, he said, each should have required a two-thirds majority vote as special appropriations. Instead, the ruling was they needed only a simple majority, because they are supposedly related to the general appropriations bill.
They are one-time special appropriations, according to Lucas, and that’s how they should have been treated. When he pushed the red button at his desk to vote “nay” on House Bill 1137, the long-time school teacher put his interpretation of the state constitution ahead of his personal and professional interests, especially the $8.7 million of additional school aid that comes to an extra $69 per student.
The nay from Lucas put him on the losing side of the 61-6 outcome and grouped the Democrat with five of the hardest-line Republican conservatives in House: Shawn Tornow, of Sioux Falls, Lora Hubbel, of Sioux Falls, Lance Russell, of Hot Springs, Thomas Brunner, of Nisland and Hal Wick, of Sioux Falls.
Tornow, a lawyer, has repeatedly stood on principle this session. On a seemingly daily basis he expressed objections that legislation was flawed in some way and needed amending. Sometimes House members agreed.
He understands that he’s worn out his welcome with at least some of the other representatives. That hasn’t kept him in his chair. He wasn’t shy about going right at Brunner the other evening as the House fought over the governor’s much-revised legislation for teaching reforms, House Bill 1234.
Tornow’s point was along the same line of thought as Lucas. Tornow said HB 1234 was a violation of the state constitution’s requirement that a bill contain a single subject. The title made Tornow’s argument for him.
It reads: “An Act to provide incentives to teach in critical need areas, to provide for rewards for best teachers and those teaching in math and science subject areas, to revise certain provisions regarding evaluation of teachers, to create a system for evaluating principals, to distinguish between tenured and nontenured teachers, to revise certain provisions regarding the employment of teachers, and to repeal provisions regarding the teacher compensation assistance program.”
After your brain has caught its breath again, here’s what the state constitution says in Article 3, Section 21: “One subject expressed in title. No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”
Tornow questioned Brunner about that matter. The chairman of the House education committee wasn’t flustered by the challenge. “There’s one subject: Student achievement,” Brunner replied.
Tornow continued, querying Brunner whether some topics in the legislation would be easier to pass than others. Brunner responded with a yes but didn’t stop there. “That’s not what this bill does. This is reform,” he said.
Tornow drilled deeper. He said teaching scholarships for critical needs subjects don’t fit with student achievement or with teacher evaluations or principal evaluations. He said this is the same thing that Congress does and that many Americans find offensive.
“We’re above that in South Dakota,” Tornow said. “That’s why our constitution clearly lays that out.”
HB 1234 went on to pass with no votes to spare 36-33. (A simple majority in the House requires 36 of the elected 70 members.) Tornow and Lucas were among the nays, but their opposition came over different parts of the bill.
They reflected one of the great dangers of such multi-topic legislation: There isn’t a clear up and down vote to make. House members were so weary of the pressure on HB 1234 that they wanted to proceed to a final decision regardless of the outcome, which no one on the House floor expressed any certainty about.
Their fatigue and frustration came boiling out the next morning, when they voted 68-2 to override the governor’s veto on a tax exemption for livestock bedding. That legislation from Rep. Dennis Feickert, D-Aberdeen, received only 52 yes votes on its first time through the House.
The funny thing about the Tornow and Lucas positions last week was the Legislature had already expressed its thoughts about the need for a single-subject amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
That statement came in House Concurrent Resolution 1010, whose prime sponsor was Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Sioux Falls.
It noted that 43 states already have single-subject requirements and urged that Congress shall adopt an amendment stating, “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”
HCR 1010 flew through House on a 64-0 vote and then the Senate 31-1.
You can probably guess how Larry Lucas and Shawn Tornow voted on HCR 1010. As for Jon Hansen and four dozen of the other representatives and senators who backed HCR 1010, well …, they voted for HB 1234, despite the multiple subjects in the title.
Principles indeed take unexpected turns in the Legislature. The political views of Larry Lucas and Shawn Tornow can often be very different.
But they agree in their belief that democracy’s bedrock is the constitution, and this past week they weren’t afraid to take their stands to show it.