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SD legislative staff will work in partisan caucus meetings

PIERRE — The state Legislature’s Executive Board made a major change Monday on the eve of the 2014 session of the Legislature that opens today.

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For the first time, the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the Senate and the House of Representatives can invite members of the Legislature’s non-partisan professional staff into closed-door caucuses for confidential assistance.

The issue previously had split lawmakers, but the 15 members of the Executive Board voted unanimously in favor late Monday afternoon to accept a nine-point list of protocols drafted by Legislative Research Council senior counsel Reuben Bezpaletz.

The new policy reflects a less-experienced Legislature that has gradually taken shape under term limits that don’t allow a lawmaker to seek a fifth consecutive two-year term in the same chamber.

The protocol calls for a caucus to formally make a request with the LRC director — currently interim head Fred Schoenfeld — who then will assign the staff person to the caucus to respond to questions within that staff member’s expertise. A staff person won’t be allowed to attend a caucus on a regular basis to address questions as they arise.

Questions deemed appropriate for staff members to answer include constitutionality, legality, legislative precedent, procedure, interpretation of rules, style and form, statutory construction, research, availability of information, fiscal analysis and calculation, and discussion or preparation of amendments to pending legislation.

Off-limits will be questions about ethics, partisan strategy, subjective value judgments about pending legislation, and thought processes and purposes of sponsors of legislation.

Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, and Schoenfeld will explain the protocols to each of the four caucuses in the early days of the session. Maher is chairman of the Executive Board.

Staff members who participate in closed caucuses are prohibited from divulging information about their participation. They can express the same or similar information or opinions if they are called to other caucuses on the same topics, but they can’t divulge they participated in the other caucuses.

Likewise, legislators are prohibited from quoting or attributing any statement made in caucus by staff during floor debate or other legislative discussions.

The LRC director will keep a log of the date that each staff person was requested to attend a caucus. The reason for the request will be confidential. However, the log is open to inspection by each caucus. No staff member can be disciplined for good-faith participation in a caucus if it was in compliance with the protocols.

Bezpaletz said drafting the protocols was “an evolving process” as he received more information from legislators about their intentions. He acknowledged there will be some misapprehensions, but the protocols mean “there’s no big fish hooks in this frog.”

Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, said the two-page list accomplishes his goal of allowing the LRC’s expertise to be used in caucus meetings.

“These are pretty well drafted,” said Brown, the Senate’s president pro tem. “Nice job.”

Sen. Larry Lucas, D-Mission, said he was opposed to using LRC staff in caucuses because of the potential for partisan political abuses. He said he’s changed his mind after seeing the protocols.

“It will be pretty difficult for any abuse to occur,” Lucas said. “I think, in the end, it can actually help us become better legislators.”

The 2014 session opens at noon today and Gov. Dennis Daugaard is scheduled to deliver the annual State of the State speech to a joint assembly of the 105 lawmakers in the House chamber at 1 p.m.