Woster: Legislature's disregard for the people's voice is disappointing

Whenever I have a chance to vote against someone who messed with a decision by the people, I do it.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Over four decades of covering the South Dakota Legislature as a newspaper reporter, I developed a tolerance for the actions and inactions of its elected members.

Much of what happened in the Legislature absolutely fascinated me. I enjoyed watching the decision-making process on policies and bills, and I came to accept with little emotion the speechifying that went on in committees and on the floors of the House and Senate.

Some of it was boring, sure, but I got paid to be there. My job was to report as best I could on the actions of our elected lawmakers. Beyond that, my job was to report, again as best I could, on how those actions could or would impact the citizens who sent their fellow citizens to Pierre to represent them.

Nobody asked my opinion on the things I covered. I probably wouldn’t have given it if I had been asked. Reporting the news was my job. Having a high tolerance threshold made that job easier.

In the years since I left legislative reporting (the last session I worked was 2009), I have found that my tolerance level has slipped. I’m still often fascinated by the Legislature’s actions. I’m still sometimes bored by the whole thing. I find that I have more opinions on what’s going on than I ever did when I worked around the Capitol building. Nobody asks for my opinions on legislative matters, and I rarely offer my opinions. I have them, though, especially at times when legislators mess around with the constitutionally guaranteed process of initiative and referendum.


The initiative and referendum section in the state constitution is the place where we gave ourselves as citizens the power to write and pass our own laws, independent of the Legislature. It’s where we gave ourselves the power to repeal laws passed by the Legislature. Those powers were included in the early constitution. South Dakota was the first state in the nation whose people gave themselves the power of initiative and referendum. In more recent years, we also gave ourselves the power to initiate amendments to the constitution itself.

Taken as a whole, we the people reserved to ourselves important powers. Those powers tell our legislators, “Look, most of the time, we’ll let you work on laws and such. If we really, really don’t like what you’re trying to do, we have this big initiative-referendum hammer, and we’ll use it to be our own lawmakers.’’

Over the decades, citizens have used that power relatively sparingly. It’s there, though, and it’s priceless. It’s the place where we actually can take the law into our own hands, if we can gather enough signatures and if we can persuade a majority of voters to support our proposal.

When I started covering the Legislature in 1969, the elected members would have resigned their seats in the House and Senate before they messed with something initiated by the people. In some cases that was because they respected the people’s will. In other cases, probably, it was because they feared the wrath of voters at the next election. Either way, they seldom messed with a citizen decision, not for a couple of election cycles, for sure.

When South Dakota legislators decided five or so years ago to repeal a set of ethics regulations written and adopted through the initiative process, I could hardly believe it. The votes were barely counted before legislators started talking about getting rid of the citizen initiative and writing something of their own. Are you kidding me?

They went ahead and messed with that one. That was disappointing. More recently, it’s been disappointing to see the willingness of legislators and other elected officials to mess with cannabis-related citizen initiatives. It’s been disappointing in recent years to see efforts to make the initiative process more difficult for citizens to use. Maybe it isn’t perfect, but belongs to the people.

Here’s something on which I have a strong opinion. Whenever I have a chance to vote against someone who messed with a decision by the people, I do it. If more people would do the same thing, maybe they’d quit messing with us.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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