PIERRE (AP) – South Dakota lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a pair of proposals aimed at increasing scrutiny on voter-backed ballot initiatives like a recently-passed constitutional amendment that would have legalized marijuana, but was struck down by a circuit court.
Republican legislators argued that a series of proposals would test the initiatives before they make it on the ballot and help make sure that voter-passed laws are not gutted. They pointed to the legal battle over the constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana in which the state was, in essence, suing itself as an example of how messy such measures can become.
In a state that became the first in the nation to allow citizens to propose and vote on laws, the process in recent years has often resulted in lawsuits and tussles between voters and legislators.
“It needs to be done in a healthy way to restore confidence in the system,” said Republican Rep. Will Mortensen, who is pushing a bill to require the secretary of state to determine whether a proposed constitutional amendment adheres to the requirement that it addresses a single subject before it goes on the ballot.
But after years of voters wrestling with the Legislature over ballot-passed laws, advocates for ballot initiatives say the proposals threaten the rights of voters to directly shape their government.
“This is a systematic attack by the Republican party to stifle direct democracy in South Dakota,” said Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat whose involvement with state politics started with a ballot initiative.
He worried that the proposed laws would erode the ballot iniative process, continuing to make it more difficult for voters to directly get their say on laws that are usually shaped by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
The House passed a resolution Tuesday to put a new constitutional amendment to voters that would require ballot initiatives raising taxes or requiring more than $10 million in state funds in a year to get 60% of the vote before becoming law.
Meanwhile, the Senate has passed bills that include: Requiring comment periods before the attorney general writes an explanation of initiatives that appear on ballots, scrutinizing whether constitutional amendments address a single subject, and requiring petitions to put initiatives on the ballot be printed in 14-point font.
Senate Pro Tem Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican, described his proposal to require the secretary of state to scrutinize constitutional amendment proposals as “designed to make it way, way fairer on the people that are going to spend the money” in election campaigns.
He said that legal battles that ensue after constitutional amendments are passed would go directly to the Supreme Court. That would help lawmakers avoid the situation they are in this year, in which they are left watching the lawsuit challenging the amendment legalizing marijuana proceed through the court system. If the state Supreme Court overturns a lower court's ruling striking the amendment down, possession of small amounts of marijuana would be legalized on July 1.
Schoenbeck said that efforts to reform the process would help protect the state from becoming the “playground” of groups from outside the state trying to spend money to pass laws in a small media market.
But De Knudson, who perennially launches democratic reform efforts like allowing open voting in primaries and preventing legislative district boundaries from being redrawn for political gain, said that rather than putting further restrictions on the process, the Legislature should be making it easier for citizens like her to get laws passed.
“There are many areas that if the South Dakota Legislature is not comfortable or courageous enough to tackle some of its serious problems, voters should do it," she said.