WOSTER: South Dakotans’ work ethic shows in legislative sessionIn March of 1994 I observed a week of the New York Legislature in session. Albany was something else.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
After work on Friday last, I listened online to the last bit of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee as it finished a general spending bill and sent it to the House and Senate for final action.
That action by that committee at the end of each session pretty much means legislators have finished debating the ideas and policies and plans for the session and are ready to head home to their real jobs. Both houses adopted the budget bill late in the evening so, except for a final day to consider vetoes late in March, the annual lawmaking gathering in Pierre is over.
Not too many states take as little time to do the annual legislative thing as South Dakota does. The representatives and senators arrive early in January, and two months later, they’re finished. I’m not in the business of judging the quality of the work product compared to other states, but I had an eye-opening experience about the pace of the action here in South Dakota compared to another state.
In March of 1994 I observed a week of the New York Legislature in session. The paper had arranged for me to work out of the Gannett News Service bureau in Albany. I have 40 years of legislative coverage on my resume, but except for that one week in Albany, my career was in Pierre, watching and reporting on the South Dakota Legislature. Albany was something else.
Here in South Dakota, legislative days start early and often end late. Each house has various committee meetings all morning and floor sessions each afternoon. The Joint Appropriations Committee meets all morning each day and after the floor sessions now and then. Session only lasts a couple of months, but it can be an intense couple of months. I always enjoyed the intensity, which is a little sick. After each session ended, I went into meeting withdrawal.
The week in Albany, I attended two committees and part of one floor session, I think. The GNS guy in charge there told me that was the extent of that legislative week. For kicks, he sent me to a state court hearing. The legislative load seemed kind of light. I was told the Legislature ran into June. That seemed extreme. When I told the GNS guy the South Dakota schedule, he said that seemed extreme.
I don’t miss much about reporting, but I found myself kind of missing the rhythm of a legislative session last Friday evening. With the newspaper, I’d have been in the Capitol the entire day and much of the night, watching the budget committee pass and kill amendments to the spending bill, hanging on into the evening until the final votes were taken and then sending quick updates to stories filed earlier about the budget and the last day of session.
I haven’t been around the last, late hour of session’s final day since 2009, but it still seems odd to be home before the legislators have left the building.
Reflecting on the last day of session and the adoption of a general appropriations bill reminded me of the year the Legislature argued through its scheduled Friday adjournment, argued all day Saturday and argued well into Sunday afternoon before agreeing on a level of spending for the next fiscal year. The year was 1976, and the fight was over a proposal by a majority of the House to cut a flat 2 percent from the budget bill passed by the Senate.
The legislators talked well into the early hours of Saturday that year. They recessed to grab some sleep, came back sometime after sunrise and argued most of the day before recessing a while and coming back on Sunday.
After that first recess, maybe 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on Saturday, I talked in an otherwise empty House chamber with one of the leaders. As we talked, a kid came in with a huge tray heaped with hamburgers. He asked who ordered the food.
“I don’t know, but I’ll take one of those burgers,” the legislator with me said.
The kid wasn’t happy when he left the Capitol. Most people weren’t happy that weekend.