A Week Without Accountability, Transparency

***Legislative Update from House Democratic Leader Rep. Bernie Hunhoff (D-Yankton)

The end of the legislative session coincides with the beginning of baseball season, so lawmakers sometimes overdo the sports metaphors as we make our closing arguments.

Here’s the biggest difference between a baseball game and a day at the legislature. On the baseball field, we all agree that three strikes are an out and you have to run from first to second to third before you score. Basic rules of the game, right?

But in the legislature, anything goes as long as you have the votes. That unfortunate fact is exacerbated by the fact that the same party rules both houses of the legislature as well as the governor’s office and all the constitutional offices.

Several examples of abuses occurred just this past week. One involved SB 48, a routine bill designed to make slight adjustments in the current 2012 budget. Since it is an appropriation for ongoing and ordinary expenses of state government, the bill only needs a simple majority vote. No problem there.

But buried in SB 48 were several new programs, including a controversial new concept that proposes to spend $5 million to help big companies recruit workers from out-of-state. The program may have merit, but it’s a special appropriation and the rules (the constitution, in fact) say it requires a special bill and a two-thirds vote. But just as is done in Washington, the administration buried the program in a big bill. You had to be a legislative sleuth to find it. Democrats tried to amend that section of the bill, but Republicans disagreed. And they get to be the umpires in our democracy.

Then the very next day, a bunch of lobbyists amended several corporate grant programs onto a wind energy bill (SB 170) and won a 10-3 vote. Included in the bill is a replacement for the corporate grant program that has been referred to a vote in November. You might remember that this debate grew out of the controversy over whether TransCanada Pipeline needed tax breaks to come here. If the lobbyists win, you won’t get a chance to vote on the issue even though more than 20,000 South Dakotans signed petitions for the right to do so.

Democrats have supported countless economic development incentives in recent years, but we drew the line on HB 1230 last year because it took money from the general fund (used for schools and health care) and redirected it to the corporate grant program for very large projects. We told the administration that we would support an appropriate funding source, but they had the votes to ram it through last year and they had the votes in House Commerce to repeat the mistake.

Money usually wins in baseball, and it wins in the legislature. But at least the baseball teams agree on some basic rules of fair play. That isn’t always the case in Pierre.

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