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WOSTER: Legislature: SD's zaniest indoor winter sport

Terry Woster, Daily Republic Columnist   The South Dakota Legislature convenes Tuesday for its annual session, and for me it marks the 45th session I’ll have watched since I moved to Pierre and discovered the state’s zaniest indoor winter sport.

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I try to tell my colleagues around the office that a legislative session should be fun. They grimace and shake their heads. “The old boy has finally gone around the bend,” I can almost hear them whisper to one another. “It’s so sad when they hang around too long.”

I suppose a session isn’t always fun in the sense of a good time was had by all and everybody grinned from ear to ear. It can be intense, grueling, sometimes boring and once in a while inscrutable. A session is, though, always fascinating. I expect the upcoming 2014 Legislature to be no different, although a few of the issues and a few of the faces have changed from last year.

All of the faces — and a few of the issues — have changed since the 1970 session, the first one I witnessed from the press boxes in the Senate and House as a young wire-service reporter. And, frankly, it’s the faces and the personalities connected to those faces that make each session a fascinating time in central South Dakota. Some years, I’d have paid admission just to hang out with some of the characters who served in the two chambers or who lobbied those lawmakers.

You know how some weather forecasters on television talk about the Black Hills being the “banana belt,” a warmer place in winter than the rest of the state? One session early in my career, a Rapid City legislator, a Democrat, arranged somehow to have a belt hung from the ceiling lights in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Hanging within the looped belt was a bunch of bananas. Now, if you haven’t been in the House chamber, you don’t know how very high that ceiling is. Take my word for it, it’s a lot higher than a guy would reach with a six- or seven-foot stepladder. I never did figure out how the guy managed that feat.

He was the same person who, late in one legislative session when tempers were short and tensions were high, pulled on a dress and wig and walked into the Republican caucus. I was outside the room, waiting for a reaction. For a moment after the Democrat walked in, I heard nothing. Then I heard the barking laughter of Republican Rep. Joe Barnett from Aberdeen, and pretty soon laughter rolled out the door of that fourth-floor committee room. The Democrat emerged, red-faced and laughing, too, although he said, “For a second or two, I thought I’d gone one practical joke too far.”

During my second or third session, I was chatting with one of the House employees, a person responsible for taking amendments to bills from legislators and getting them into the official process if the House members approved. The guy told me that a leader approached him once during debate on a bill, handed him a folded sheet of paper and told him to keep it while the lawmaker explained the proposed amendment. The worker did, and the legislator explained his amendment. It was, the worker told me, a pretty simple, short explanation of a simple, short amendment. After the amendment and then the bill passed, the legislator came to the front desk, where the worker held a blank sheet of paper.

“I’ll get you the language in a minute,” the lawmaker supposedly said.

“What was I to do?” the worker asked me.

Sessions generated much paper in the pre-computer years, but that didn’t mean a lot of information got shared. Time was, a public clipboard or spindle outside each chamber held paper copies of each bill. Sharing was a must, but every now and then when a bunch of bills hit the clipboard, a lobbyist would take the whole thing into an empty phone booth and read until finished.

Which dates me, I suppose, not only because of the paper copies of bills and the shared clipboards but also because of the phone booths. What the dickens were those?