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WOSTER: Experience speaks volumes

One of the things I enjoyed most about covering the South Dakota Legislature as a newspaper reporter was swapping stories about the old days during the plentiful periods of waiting that are an enduring piece of the process.

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Term limits for legislators and retirements and deaths of some of the most veteran lobbyists, legislative staffers and news reporters have reduced and continue to eliminate some of what we like to call the "institutional memory'' of the Legislature. Institutional memory pretty much means a bunch of old men and women who can look at a bill or hear an argument in today's Legislature and link it to something that happened 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Knowing the "way back'' history of a piece of legislation or a bright new idea isn't essential, I suppose, but sometimes it helps with the understanding of why something didn't work when it was tried back then. It might even offer a guide to making the idea work today by going to school on the mistakes of the past.

An aside: As I grow older, I find that society undervalues actual experience. I know that the young folks need to learn a lot of things for themselves. I understand that they're seeing and doing and creating things old folks like me can't even imagine. Still, what's the point of living a long time if the mistakes you've made can't help someone else avoid the same mistakes? If I learned a big lesson by sticking my hand in the power take-off on the tractor, there's no reason someone else needs to learn that same lesson by doing that same thing, is there?

Without a few old legislators or lobbyists around to tell tall stories, where would the news reporters go when they were assigned one of those "it happened back when'' packages we like to run on anniversaries of big events? And for sure the news business loves "it's the anniversary of'' stories. That's why the papers and screens were filled with stories of the Kennedy assassination last fall, 50 years after the event, and why the same media outlets were chock full of Beatles stories, photos and video clips earlier this month, 50 years after the British Invasion brought Beatlemania to our shores.

If I were in the business today, I think I'd be doing some research on a major action of the 1984 Legislature. That's the year the lawmakers, responding to a push from then-Gov. Bill Janklow, voted to close the University of South Dakota at Springfield and turn the place into what today is Mike Durfee State Prison. It was an intense, sometimes bitter debate and decision, and some of the negotiations and confrontations were fascinating.

Deeply involved in the issue, dragged into it, he might say if he were alive today, was Republican Rep. Harold Sieh of Herrick. He headed the House Appropriations Committee, and for the rest of his career, he always told me the vote on Springfield in 1984 was the hardest decision he'd had to make as a legislator. "It tore people apart,'' he said once. "It tore me apart.''

Other legislators I've known thought some of the income tax votes were hardest. Buying a railroad was no easy matter, either, nor was approving video lottery. The women and men who had to make those votes are no longer in the Legislature, none of them. Time was, a rookie might show up in the House and be informally mentored by a 20-year veteran. The vet showed the youngster the ropes, told the old stories, instilled a sense of the history of the institution. By the time the veteran retired (or lost an election) the kid had enough institutional memory to pass the information to the next rookie.

I started covering sessions in 1970. I grew as a reporter in part by hanging around listening to the veterans -- legislators, lobbyists, staff and reporters. Their experiences and memories taught me much about South Dakota, the Legislature and the people.

I'd like to think that somewhere today someone is sitting in a corner in the Capitol listening to the old people -- if any old people remain.