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South Dakota Democrats decry winnowing minority party rights at Legislature

In quiet, though so-far largely unsuccessful efforts, Republicans in Pierre have taken advantage of their 94-to-11 advantage over Democrats in the Statehouse to entertain legislation that would effectively silence the minority party on boards overseeing colleges to retirement laws and the Game, Fish and Parks Commission

Republicans in Pierre enjoy a greater advantage over Democrats than at any point in recent memory, holding 94 of the possible 105 seats. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

PIERRE, S.D. — The sliver of Democrats in Pierre this year are alarmed by increasing attempts to, in their words, further winnow minority party rights at the state level.

On Thursday, March 4, a lawmaker who has spearheaded legislative efforts to combat what she decries as liberal ideology in higher education , brought an effort to remove Democrats from the Board of Regents.

Currently, the nine-member board comprises one student, one Independent, one Democrat and six Republicans. State law limits party representation to six, but Rep. Sue Peterson , a Sioux Falls Republican, alluded to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" book on President Lincoln's cabinet in arguing that an executive shouldn't have to consider political party when making appointments.

"We believe the best way...would provide for the opportunity to make the governor who is making the appointments to be able to have choice from the widest pool of candidates for every position," Peterson said.

When senators questioned the bill, Minority Leader Troy Heinert , a Mission Democrat from the Rosebud Indian Reservation, asked co-sponsor Sen. Al Novstrup , R-Aberdeen, what guaranteed there'd be any that any Democrats remain on the Board of Regents.


"Under the proposed law," Novstrup replied, "there is no assurance that the minority party would have any representation."

Heinert noted that 3000,000 South Dakotans are not Republicans -- they're either registered Democrats or Independents. Yet under this policy, they'd likely have zero representatives on the board.

"We need balance," Heinert said.

At a press conference later Thursday morning, Heinert reiterated what he'd said in committee, decrying efforts by some Republicans to pull requirements for minority party representation from the State-Tribal Relations Committee and the Game, Fish and Parks Commission.

"An eagle can't fly with a wing three-times the size of the other," Heinert said.

Democrats an endangered species in Pierre

The marginalization of opposition party has not taken many years in South Dakota. Just over a decade ago, the state had two Democratic representatives in the U.S. Congress -- Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin . And in the 2010 legislative session , Republicans only outnumbered Democrats 21 to 14 in the state Senate.

Even in 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Sen. Billie Sutton, a former rodeo star from Burke, came within fewer than 11,000 votes of besting then-Congresswoman Kristi Noem.

But the party's representation in Pierre, never gushing, has dried up to a trickle slower than a frozen Bad River in January. Even a Democratic low-water mark of 16 caucus members in 2018 somehow shrank after last November's statewide elections , with only three senators returning to Pierre with eight in the House of Representatives.


What's transpired over the last two months, say Democrats in Pierre, is an onslaught on remaining vestiges of stipulations of minority party representation on a series of bipartisan boards, from the Board of Regents -- who oversee the state's public universities -- to the State-Tribal Relations Committee and even the obscure Retirement Laws Committee.

Democrats -- with the aid of a few sympathetic Republicans -- fought back a bill that sought to remove all but one member of the minority party from State-Tribal Relations, reaching a compromise by which the House Speaker and Senate Pro Tempore can appoint co-chairs. But they lost seats on the retirement committee and only narrowly beat back a bill to change party affiliation rules for Game, Fish and Park commissioners.

"We should just say that all of the GFP may not be members of the same political party," said Sen. John Wiik , R-Big Stone City, this week before the Senate Agriculture Committee, proposing an amendment to SB115 to soften his language, from dropping minority party mandate to simply losing party affiliations altogether. "When you figure out that we're adding NPA/Independent, Democratic, Libertarian, Green, whatever party you choose, Constitution Party, that was a thing for awhile, whatever party you choose to be a member of I don't think it should matter whether you serve on this commission."

Enough committee members agreed, however, that a future governor wouldn't look past party affiliation when making an appointment.

"I think people from different political parties bring different political perspectives," said Sen. V.J. Smith . R-Brookings. "And I think it's healthy."

The measure was defeated 4-to-3.

'Sadly, we're tending toward democracy'

Some academic experts suggest that one-party rule in states often is accompanied by corruption. A recent article in The Atlantic lays blame on Democrats' stranglehold on Albany, N.Y., for lapse oversight in the scandal-plagued governorship of Andrew Cuomo. In 2018, the Chicago Tribune editorial board warned about "the restoration of one-party" rule in the state after the election of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

In South Dakota, Democrats working under Republican supermajorities have proven wily, backing legislation at the ballot box, including medicinal marijuana, which passed soundly with 70% of the state's voters last November.


But this week, that mechanism of direct democracy, too, came under attack. Both the House and Senate passed a resolution headed to voters in June 2022 that will set a 60% threshold vote on initiated measures that spend more than $10 million, which any future effort to expand Medicaid into the state would do .

On Thursday's floor debate, Rep. Steve Haugaard , R-Sioux Falls, issued a curious ultimatum for an American lawmaker, warning colleagues about the nefarious dangers of the principle of one-person, one-vote.

"We've started out as a Republic," Haugaard said, referencing the earliest days of U.S. history, when large swaths of the persons living in the country -- women, enslaved persons, Native Americans -- could not vote. "Sadly, we're tending in the direction of a democracy."

The House, with a Republican supermajority, voted overwhelmingly, 51- to 17, in favor of putting the 60% threshold on the ballot.

Bipartisanship codified in state government, for now

At Thursday's press conference, Heinert wondered why his Republican colleagues felt compelled to further decimate the party's standing in Pierre. After all, while voter registration numbers from the Secretary of State's website shows that Independents and No Party Determination are the fastest growing in the state, there are still only Republicans and Democrats -- no registered Independents, Libertarians or even Constitution Party members -- holding a seat in the Statehouse.

"I don't know the reasoning for the assault on the minority party," Heinert said. "I don't think we're that hard to work with."

Largely, Democrats have partnered with Republicans on the session's main initiatives, from spending on infrastructure projects to House Minority Leader Jamie Smith co-sponsoring the two articles of impeachment against Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg brought last week by Rep. Will Mortenson , R-Pierre.

But the trend seems increasingly like a gallop toward one-party dominance.

Before unanimously defeating Novstrup and Peterson's bill on Thursday, Sen. Wayne Steinhauer , R-Hartford, issued an almost aspirational warning to his Republican colleagues.

"We might have a super-majority as conservatives in the state right now, but that might not always be the case," Steinhauer said.

In the parlance of Pierre, Steinhauer's "might not" may've just been a politeness for his friends across the aisle.

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