When Democrats held a brief, slim majority in the South Dakota Legislature back in the early 1970s, they enacted a number of rules and procedures that opened the process to the public far more than had been the case.
Changes included posting times and places of committee meetings and agendas of bills, recording amendments and votes and requiring that every bill formally introduced receive some public action. Those changes were great for reporters like me and for other citizens who wished to follow the workings of the people elected to represent them in Pierre. Changes since the 1970s have given access to live audio and video of meetings and votes for those not able to be attended in person, as well as an archive of hearings and debates that can be accessed later. The changes have been important for the people’s right to know.
Citizens still bear some responsibility to want to know. As Father Martin said once in a talk about alcoholism and recovery, “I know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. But you can let him smell the water, and you can make him thirsty.’’ It was something like that, anyway. It’s important, really important, for people to thirst for information about the workings of government.
As I watch the nearly total power someone like the majority leader of the U.S. Senate wields, I appreciate even more that in South Dakota every bill gets a public disposition. In the U.S. Senate, the majority leader can decide simply to not consider something, even if it has already passed the House. That seems — how to put this — something less than good government.
Don’t get me wrong. South Dakota legislators do some odd things. They always have. These days it seems more of them are doing wild things than ever. Maybe I’m just getting old. I’m old enough to remember when the two major political parties had nearly equal voting strength in the Capitol. It was short-lived, but it seemed to me a lot of good stuff got done. It involved communicating and compromising, but it worked.
And don’t think I consider every bill that’s introduced to be deserving of a lot of debate. Some pretty off-beat ideas were written into bill form during the years I covered the Legislature as a news reporter. Sometimes a legislator had a wild idea of their own that got a jacket and a number. Sometimes a legislator introduced a bill as a favor to a voter in the district. “Ah, a constituent’s bill,’’ old-timers would murmur, nodding understandingly. Those bills usually met a quick end — introduction to a committee, a few words of explanation and a killing vote. But they got a vote. They weren’t hidden somewhere in the process.
I’m sure a few of those kinds of bills will be among the several hundred introduced and debated during the 2021 Legislature, currently moving through its second week. And, as I said, citizens will be able to sit at home and find ways to follow along. Time was you had to be there to know what legislators were doing. Or you had to hire someone to be there for you.
In my early years, evening hearings were popular on major proposals. Income tax bills, fee increases, waterfowl or pheasant hunting, land use. Those were among topics that brought citizens to Pierre. Many came to evening hearings, sometimes held in the House chamber. The crowds often packed the place to the stained glass panels in the ceiling.
One income tax hearing I recall drew so many people with something to say that each speaker got two minutes. “Spend too much time on your name and where you’re from, and you’re done,’’ the committee chair warned. It wasn’t an elegant show, but the people got to be involved — if they spoke quickly enough.
I guess this is my yearly plea for everyone to check in on the legislative show. What these people do affects your life, your family and your property. Keep track of the action, even on the goofy bills. That’s something we are able to do in this state.