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WOSTER: Reorganizing the executive branch

Terry Woster

Forty years ago this month, then-Gov. Dick Kneip introduced Executive Order 73-1, a plan to reorganize the executive branch of state government.

I read a copy of the order when it was introduced. Ted Muenster, the governor's top aide at the time (he'd be chief of staff these days, but the governor's office didn't have such a title back then), gave me the copy, along with a pep talk about what a leap forward the reorganization plan was for efficient and effective governing in South Dakota.

He and a number of other scholars of the governmental process had been giving similar pep talks right along as the reorganization plan was developed. At times, I'll admit, the restructuring business those folks were working on looked a lot like someone doing a lot of shifting around of a lot of boxes on an organization chart.

Looking back at 73-1, I'm amazed it took so long for executive branch leaders to figure out they needed to streamline things, create chains of command, spans of control and ways to identify which agency or department ought to be accountable for a particular task.

Muenster is the guy who told me the simple story that he said made him realize how much in need of change the executive branch was. Muenster said he got a call one day from the state snake eradicator. The guy was responsible for, well, eradicating snakes (explain that job in the Joint Appropriations Committee). The snake eradicator told Muenster he needed a new pickup or something like that. When Muenster asked why he was calling the governor's office with a basic vehicle acquisition request, the man said that on the organization chart, he reported directly to the governor. Hmm, Muenster responded.

When Kneip's reorganization plan took effect, the snake eradicator answered to a supervisor just a little lower on the chain of command than the chief executive of the state.

At the time Kneip introduced his reorganization order, the state constitution provided that the order would "have the force of law within 90 days after submission, unless disapproved by a resolution concurred in by a majority of all the members of either house."

Well, about half of the South Dakota Legislature that year seemed inclined to disapprove Kneip's proposal. The other half liked it. It was a pretty significant change in the executive branch, after all, taking more than 160 boards, agencies and commissions and combining them into 16 departments.

Some pretty intelligent, experienced folks didn't think Kneip had the power to do a wholesale reorganization. Others believed that if he did have that power, he had to submit each change in a separate executive order. To create 16 departments would have taken, then, at least 16 orders, maybe more, and each order might face critical constituency groups.

The all-or-nothing order Kneip offered was a daunting thing. It was also a politically crafty business from the start. The House in the 1973 session had 35 Republicans and 35 Democrats. The Democrats backed Kneip and his single order. Since it takes a majority -- 36 votes, not 35 -- to have a successful final action in the House, a motion to disapprove order 73-1 needed 36 votes. It never happened.

In February of that year, Kneip asked the state Supreme Court for an opinion on whether his single executive order was an unconstitutional exercise of power. He'd done it, but a number of folks thought he'd gone way beyond the boundaries of executive authority -- gone outside his mind, as the Oakland A's manager said to the owner in the movie "Moneyball."

Three members of the court said Kneip was within his authority. One said he wasn't, and the fifth one said he wouldn't answer because he'd already said earlier that reorganization of the executive branch was a legislative matter. (I'm turning the legal language into an old reporter's interpretation, but I think that's how it went. For sure a majority of the court said, "go ahead, dude.")

The reorganization plan became effective. That's some old history -- four decades old -- but if you read today about cabinet secretaries or executive-branch departments, Executive Order 73-1 is the reason.