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Ease of ballot-initiative placement a source of concern

SIOUX FALLS (AP) -- South Dakota legislators are considering whether to make it harder for people to place initiatives on the ballot, a topic that's likely to come up during the 2017 session.

SIOUX FALLS (AP) - South Dakota legislators are considering whether to make it harder for people to place initiatives on the ballot, a topic that's likely to come up during the 2017 session.

In an election season that featured few competitive races, 10 ballot questions were the main source of drama Tuesday, bringing in millions of dollars from interested out-of-state groups.

The influx of cash raised concerns among opponents of some of the measures, including Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, that the out-of-state groups were taking advantage of South Dakota's low signature requirements and cheap advertising rates to experiment with the state's constitution and laws.

A Georgia-based car title lending company pumped nearly $3.2 million into two ballot measure campaigns over payday lending interest rates; a California businessman put $2 million into passing a victims' rights measure; and a New York-based nonprofit made over $1.1 million in cash and in-kind contributions to an unsuccessful nonpartisan elections constitutional amendment campaign.

Voters ended up supporting four ballot measures and dismissing six others.

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"I feel like the process has been hijacked by people not from South Dakota," Republican Rep. Don Haggar said. "I think in light of what's happened here this past campaign season, in particular, it's a reason to look at it."

Haggar said the Legislature will likely examine the issue during the next legislative session, which begins in January. He would support "raising the bar" for South Dakota citizens to propose a change to state law, but said it's unclear what a bill might look like.

One idea would be to require that signatures are gathered from a wider geographic area of the state, he said.

For the 2016 election, it took 13,871 signatures to get an initiated measure on the ballot, while the requirement for a constitutional amendment was 27,741. It's easier to put measures on the ballot in South Dakota than most of the surrounding states, Haggar said.

Incoming GOP Sen. Jim Bolin, who currently serves in the state House, wants to see more stringent requirements specifically for constitutional amendments. "We have to reform our system - not abolish it - but reform it," he said.

The governor is open to discussing how to prevent out-of-state groups from experimenting with laws in South Dakota while preserving grassroots direct democracy in the state, chief of staff Tony Venhuizen said in an email.

It's not the first time Republican lawmakers have proposed changes. A bill put forward after the 2014 election that would have increased the number signatures required to get on the ballot was pulled in response to heavy public criticism.

Former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland, who was pushing a trio of ballot measures this campaign, said that if the Legislature makes it more difficult to get on the ballot, the law would simply be sent to the voters to decide.

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Adding more hurdles to the initiative process is the wrong approach, Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton said. One reason there were so many measures on the ballot is because people are frustrated they're not being heard in Pierre, he said.

"It just turns out that the party in power doesn't like the ballot measures that they're seeing," Sutton said. "If the roles were reversed and they were measures they supported or liked, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."

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