Today South Dakota swears in a new governor and says farewell to Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Daugaard’s tenure was efficient and low key, much like the governor himself. During his eight years in office, Daugaard and South Dakota never had much extra money in the budget. I’m sure his legacy would be greater if he’d had some money to work with to establish meaningful programs.
That doesn’t mean that he failed to get things done for the citizens of this state. Daugaard excelled in the area of government openness.
It was the governor’s keen interest in government and his frustration when he couldn’t find the information that he wanted that led to some important improvements in the way citizens can find information about the state’s dealings.
Daugaard spurred improvements to the open.sd.gov website that included state rules and information about state government board and commission meetings. These improvements were a windfall for the reporters who try to keep track of government and they also make it easier for citizens to follow along.
While Daugaard made some important improvements, his successor, Kristi Noem, has some ideas of her own when it comes to government openness.
While she was running for the office, Noem offered what she called a Sunshine Initiative that featured improvements that will open government even more. She proposes live streaming more government meetings, limiting confidentiality clauses in government lawsuits and implementing a reporter shield law.
Noem’s call for a shield law is particularly interesting for journalists as it would prevent law enforcement or the courts from requiring reporters to turn over their notes or testify in court proceedings. It’s seen as an important protection of First Amendment rights.
In some ways, hearing Noem – and before her Daugaard and Mike Rounds – call for an improvement in government openness feels like I’m experiencing Backwards Day.
In the past Democrats have led the charge – and usually failed – to create more government openness. Maybe it makes sense that Republicans would eventually take up this cause since they make up 100 percent of South Dakota’s statewide elected officials and 99.9 percent of its legislators.
The irony here is that elected officials are embracing government “openness” in a state that boasts the most gutless open meetings law in history. For some reason, even the most ardent fans of openness haven’t been able to embrace a stiffer open meetings law that would call for the recording of executive sessions and put more enforcement muscle into the law for punishing boards and commissions that conduct the people’s business in secret.
I wish the new governor all the best as she tries to get her government openness campaign promises enacted into law. If she’s successful with those, maybe she’ll work on putting some teeth into the state’s open meetings law.
Billy McMacken is the publisher of The Brookings Register. Contact him at [email protected]