Commentary: From sleepwalking to a sprint — faster start to legislative session a welcome change


Editor's note: This commentary was written by Dana Hess of South Dakota Searchlight, an online news organization.

After retiring from a career in writing and journalism, one of the freelance assignments I took was covering the Legislature in Pierre for Community News Service. Sponsored by the South Dakota Newspaper Association (now known as the South Dakota NewsMedia Association), CNS was legislative coverage designed for weekly newspapers, though some dailies did subscribe as well.

One of the guiding principles of CNS was that since it was geared toward weekly newspapers, the price of the service had to stay low. That low price got CNS more than 50 subscribing newspapers per year, but generated only enough revenue to send me to Pierre for four weeks of the nine-week sessions.

My work with CNS lasted from 2016 to 2020. In 2021, CNS was one of many victims of the pandemic. Faced with a prolonged winter stay at home, I convinced the editor of the Rapid City Journal, a CNS subscriber in 2020, that I was familiar enough with the workings of the Legislature that I could cover the meetings remotely.

The South Dakota Legislature has a dedication to transparency. All committee meetings and floor action in the House and Senate are readily available online.

I was excited to try this new form of coverage but that excitement didn’t shine through when the editor and I were discussing my coverage for the first week of the session. I told him that little went on in the first week except the three big speeches: the State of the State, the State of the Judiciary and the State of the Tribes.

I told him I would monitor the committee and chamber agendas in case anyone decided to do more than just listen to speeches the first week. Otherwise, it would be in his best interest to use the stories about the speeches that he would get from The Associated Press instead of paying for both of us to write about the same thing.

Here I was, after talking the editor into paying for eight weeks of remote news coverage, talking him out of using my services that first week. There’s a reason why some of us aren’t businessmen.

Working for CNS, the first week of the session was one that I always attended because of the speeches. The rest of the week was a struggle to find any news. Almost all of the morning committee meetings were canceled. Sometimes the chairman of an agriculture committee or a transportation committee would be organized enough to arrange for a first-week visit from the ag secretary or the transportation secretary for an overview of the projects in their departments. By Friday of that first week, there were finally a scattered few committees ready to deal with actual legislation.

I’ve gone though this long prelude to establish the fact that I’m familiar with the workings, or lack of work, during the first week of the legislative session. Aside from the speeches, there was plenty of chatter in the hallways. Lawmakers treated the first week like a social event, catching up on the happenings from the past year and speculating about pending legislation.

In 2024, all that seems to have changed.

This year, the State of the Judiciary and State of the Tribes speeches were both held on Wednesday. Thursday morning there were actual committee hearings on bills. Legislative leaders had warned that there would be a faster start to the session this year. The brisk pace took some reporters, and at least one columnist, by surprise.

This year’s session of the Legislature got out of the blocks fast thanks to the guidance of Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree of Madison and House Majority Leader Will Mortenson of Fort Pierre.

“What we have been looking at is how can we get more days and time in to get the work done,” Crabtree told The Dakota Scout. “We are up here to tackle the toughest challenges, and we only have 40 days to do that.”

Actually it’s 38 days this year. If this year’s session is like sessions of the recent past, lawmakers will have more than 500 bills to consider. Successful bills travel a long road as they can be debated four times — in committee hearings and during floor action in both the House and Senate.

The Legislature’s slow start in the past has led to an often frantic finish as agendas are clogged with bills and morning committee hearings spill over into the evening. Trying to do so much at once is not the hallmark of good government.

Party leaders should be commended for the fast start to this legislative session. Elected to do a job in Pierre, for far too long lawmakers have been allowed to sleepwalk through the first week. Let’s hope this brisk pace at the start of the session becomes the new tradition for how work gets done at the Capitol.