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Texting ban in jeopardy as SD Senate issues dare to House

As the 2014 legislative session heads into its final days, a statewide texting while driving ban is in jeopardy as the South Dakota Senate and South Dakota House disagree on whether the act should be a primary offense. (File photo)

PIERRE -- The Legislature's two sides are headed into a showdown over how tough to make a ban against texting while driving on South Dakota's streets and highways.

The Senate took the hard line Monday and adopted amendments that would make texting a primary offense -- meaning law enforcement could stop a motorist seen in the act -- punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The changes came from Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, who's been trying for years to get a texting ban passed into law. Other senators warned him the House of Representatives would kill the Senate version.

"Our opportunity is going to be lost for another entire year," Sen. Mark Kirkeby, R-Rapid City, said.

Last week, a House committee killed Vehle's bill that was much softer. It sought a $100 fine and would have made texting a secondary offense, meaning the motorist needed to be pulled over for some other violation before a texting citation could be issued.

The bill amended Monday by Vehle originated from House Speaker Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City. The House had passed Gosch's version last month. It called for a $25 fine, a secondary offense and a repeal of the local bans adopted by eight cities and one county.

Vehle described the Gosch version Monday as "so weak it demands to be fixed" and made light of the penalty as "a whopping twenty-five bucks."

Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, tried to get Gosch's version passed intact by the Senate. He said seat belts are a secondary offense and there still were more than 4,000 tickets issued in 2013.

"This is our best opportunity to pass a statewide texting ban and it is the only version that has passed the House in four years," Maher said.

Vehle's set of amendments won approval 22-13. The Vehle version of Gosch's bill passed by the same margin.

Vehle said the state law would be similar to the local bans in strength if the latest version passes.

As Sen. Chuck Welke, D-Warner put it, without Vehle's amendments the Senate faced a decision between "a good local law and a bad state law."

The next move is up to the House later this week whether to agree with the Senate version or send the bill into a conference committee for negotiations. The House had passed the Gosch version 53-17.