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Analysis: Did the 2021 session reveal a deeper shade of red for South Dakota's conservative Legislature?

Days after completion of the 2021 legislative session, a bipartisan group of former legislators wrote a letter to the editor complaining of raw politics, not policy, fueling too many movers and shakers in the South Dakota lawmakers' chambers.

Rep. Tina Mulally, R-Rapid City (far right) looks onward during debate on Veto Day, March 29, with Rep. Tony Randolph, R-Rapid City, sitting foreground. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
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PIERRE, S.D. — The partisan tenor of the South Dakota legislative session may've been summed up in the waning moments on Monday, March 29, when Rep. Tina Mulally , R-Rapid City, toasted the president of the state's Republican Federation of Women chapter from the chamber floor.

"They are the backbone of the Republican Party during campaigns," Mulally said.

The House of Representatives — voting on whether to accept Gov. Kristi Noem's style-and-form recommendations on a transgender sports bill — stood to applaud.

Or at least most stood. A few Democrats sat.

"Personal privileges," as is parlance in Pierre, are not uncommon. Lawmakers give them when the Philip, S.D., civics class comes to town or a spouse spectates from the gallery.


But the overtly political tones struck some as off-putting.

"It wasn't unusual," said Rep. Ryan Cwach , D-Yankton. "On the floor they talk like the Democrats aren't even there half the time."

In the aftermath of the 2021 session, one marked by spending on railroad upgrades to rural broadband and low-income college scholarships, it may be the fissures of highly charged partisan issues that'll stick in people's minds, including the aforementioned transgender bill.

South Dakota is hardly the only super majority in the country, with Hawaii's and Massachusetts ' legislatures locked under, contrastingly, liberal control. But the Rushmore State, by a Forum News Service count, has the most lopsided Republican legislature in the nation — even besting the GOP's super-majority in neighboring Cheyenne, Wyo., by a fraction of a percent.

Of the 105 seats in Pierre, Republicans held 94. Although, such heavy representation doesn't mean they necessarily get along.

"When one party just dominates, you tend to get a little more fracturing than you otherwise might see," said Tim Lindberg , political science professor at the University of Minnesota Morris.

The state's Republicans did a lot of heavy-lifting, initially bringing impeachment proceedings against a sitting attorney general, trying to decriminalize — against the governor's wishes — small amounts of marijuana, and voting unanimously (in the Senate) to call for an inquiry into rescinding honor medals the U.S. military awarded to participants in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

But with the bipartisan good also came the legislatively bad, even cringe-worthy.


Early on, Rep. Phil Jensen , R-Rapid City, brought a bill , "celebrating Black History Month," that included a litany of "whereas" statements claiming the U.S. was "not a major world leader in the African slave trade" and linking the Ku Klux Klan to Democrats.

The chamber's lone Black lawmaker, Rapid City Republican Rep. Tony Randolph , a dependable conservative vote, objected.

"I'm not a fan of any resolution that essentially goes to create the divide."

The bill went down 64-4 in the House.

But plenty of bills and resolutions from the extreme right rail did receive approval, from a ban of abortions (in case of a fetal detection of Down syndrome) unlikely possible under current law to a wipe-out of game warden's long-held investigative rights under the "open fields" doctrine .

Earlier this week, a group of former legislators — including two former Republicans — authored a letter decrying the "political allegiances, opportunism and talking points" they say now govern Pierre.

"When serving in elected office, we all saw the ugly side of politics, the backroom deal and trades, but what we are seeing now is beyond the politics of our state's recent history," said the letter, signed by former legislators, including former Democratic congressional candidate Paula Hawks and Republican Stan Adelstein.

Insiders note Pierre's long been fiercely independent in those varied stripes of political red, from libertarians to the Chamber of Commerce enclave to the nearly two dozen lawmakers who claim "farmer," "rancher" or even "cow hand" in website bios.


Moreover, South Dakota, with 48% of its 580,000 voters registered Republicans, leans strongly conservative, with many largely supporting legislative proclamations opposing D.C. statehood or pulling for "fossil fuels.”

Still, longtime observers say, politics used to sit backseat to policy. Now they wonder if it's the other way around.

"Given the 24-hour news cycle, given the rancorous polarization, a lot of smart, really capable people are turned off by even trying (to run for office)," said Lindberg, who called this a national, not just local problem.

This debate recently came to a head over a new law, House Bill 1067 , an otherwise ordinary courthouse clean-up bill, specifying the documents couples getting married need to get a license.

Critics, including University of South Dakota law professor Hannah Haksgaard , had argued the measure legally prevents a woman from taking her maiden name as a middle name.

The law "takes a step backward regarding women's interests," Haksgaard wrote in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

When the op-ed was shared on a statewide attorneys' list-serve, Senate Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck , R-Watertown, shot back defending the Legislature and charging, "you couldn't get drunk enough" to believe Haksgaard's claims.

Schoenbeck observed such criticism fuels public perception that "the Legislature is filled with idiots."

In an interview on Friday, April 2, Haksgaard said she believed the Legislature “made an honest mistake.”

“Ultimately, I hope that they listen and respond because they passed a bill that is unpopular."

But the exchange typified a disconnect between Pierre and the state, according to other attorneys on the email.

South Dakota certainly isn't the only state to live with a legislature that appears aloof or on a far-flung, political track. But experts say it can be a turn-off for democratic engagement.

Amy Scott-Stoltz, president of the League of Woman Voters of South Dakota, is leading a ballot initiative for an independent commission to draw legislative maps.

"When you have a gerrymandered legislature," Scott-Stoltz said in an interview earlier this year, "the people of one party know that they know they won't win, so they don't necessarily even have candidates."

And that goes to more than just fewer personal privileges from the House floor.

South Dakota Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden addresses a joint-session of the legislature at the beginning of the 2021 cycle. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

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