South Dakota GOP uses 'emergency' rules to repeal anti-corruption law

Story highlights

  • South Dakota Voters back an 'anti-corruption' law on Election Day
  • GOP lawmakers almost immediately launched an effort to reverse it

(CNN)South Dakota Republicans on Thursday repealed a historic anti-corruption law approved by voters in a statewide referendum on Election Day.

The measure, which passed with more than 51% backing in November, would have created an independent ethics commission, limited lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, banned officials from joining lobbying firms for two years after leaving office and created so-called "Democracy vouchers" for registered voters to steer toward their preferred candidates.
    But state GOP lawmakers said they didn't think voters knew what they were doing.
    Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, signed the repeal bill on Thursday night. In a budget address delivered after the November referendum, he claimed the public had been "hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures."
    Republican legislators pushed the bill using an "emergency" clause that allows for the reversal to take effect immediately and now prevents voters from initiating a new referendum campaign in response.
    "The public will remember this vote (by state legislators) as the catalyst that launched the American anti-corruption movement," Represent.Us director Josh Silver, whose organization supported and spent money to back the initiative, said in a statement after the repeal bill passed the state senate. "The state motto in South Dakota is 'Under God, The People Rule.' The fight against corruption will not end until elected leaders abide by that principle."
    State Republicans' decision to effectively overturn the referendum results also comes on the heels of a controversial attempt by House Republicans in Washington to gut an independent ethics watchdog. That move was squashed on January 3, when GOP leaders and, eventually, then-President-elect Donald Trump asked them to stand down.
    In 2015, the ethics watchdogs at the Center for Public Integrity gave South Dakota an "F" grade in its "state integrity investigation." It ranked 47th overall and 49th in transparency of "lobbying disclosure."
    Meanwhile, the state has become a battleground in the proxy fight over the influence of money in politics. Represent.Us and and the Koch Brothers-backed American for Prosperity, which opposed the measure, both spent more than half a million dollars making their case to voters ahead of the 2016 vote.
    State Senate Majority Leader Blake Curd, a Republican, has been a vocal critic of the new restrictions, claiming they are in violation of South Dakota and US constitutional law. Curd, his colleagues and a lobbying group filed suit against the law last year in a South Dakota circuit court. The judge issued a temporary injunction, effectively putting its implementation on hold pending further review.

    Road trip to the State Capitol. #RespectOurVote

    A photo posted by Kelly Knispel (@biotayarns) on

    But with the court suggesting pieces of the law could be salvaged, Curd and GOP leaders turned their attention back to the legislature.
    He told CNN on Thursday the law was, contrary to what its supporters claimed, "more than just an ethics bill."
    "It was an attempt to fundamentally transform the South Dakota citizen legislature," he said. "The most problematic sections made de facto criminals out of every single official in our state."
    Curd was referring to a clause that would have tightened lobbyist donation limits and restrictions while ramping up penalties. But Dan Krassner, the political director for Represent.Us, told CNN that Curd and other Republican lawmakers had used their majorities in a bald power grab, flagrantly defying the will of the voters.
    By moving forward before the court case could be decided in the circuit and, eventually, state supreme court, he said, the Republicans "acted as their own judge and jury."
    Activists from around the country began to take notice as repeal efforts gained steam in January. On Tuesday night, less than 24 hours before the vote, demonstrators from Represent South Dakota projected the words "Respect Our Vote" onto the state capitol. On Wednesday, members of Mayday.Us, a group founded by Harvard Law professor and progressive activist Lawrence Lessig, sponsored a plane to fly a banner reading, "Shame on You, Respect our Vote."
    But the voting inside the capitol fell mostly along party lines. The repeal bill won out by a 27-8 margin in the senate, with two Republicans joining all six Democrats in opposition. In January, the House bill passed 54-13. Four Republicans joined nine Democrats in voting against it.
    Krassner said Represent.US was not optimistic that piecemeal bits of reform legislation now floating around the legislature, which is part-time and adjourns in early March, would ever see the light of day.
    But he is hopeful the reaction from Republican lawmakers will inflame allies around the country.
    "This is our Keystone," he said, referring to the pipeline battle that galvanized the increasingly influential grassroots environmental movement.