Republicans are not fond of any reforms, especially those of the ethics variety. South Dakota's voters, however, begged to differ. They turned out on election day and by a margin of 51%, they approved a ballot initiative that formed an independent ethics commission. The GOP Governor, Dennis Daugaard will definitely sign this measure, effectively ending any chance for ethics reform in the Mount Rushmore State.
Republicans lost that battle in November, now they’re using extraordinary measures to override the voters.
The Republicans, who outnumber Democrats roughly four-to-one in both houses of the legislature, are using emergency legislation to void the ethics reforms. The mechanism prevents voters from overruling the repeal with another ballot measure.
If voters’ decision were allowed to stand, South Dakotans would have an independent ethics board with subpoena power. Given a pair of recent high-profile corruption scandals in which former public officials in South Dakota had bilked taxpayers for years and then killed themselves after investigators caught on, the state had reason to seek a watchdog with sharper teeth and a longer leash.
The emergency package passed the House on Tuesday and is moving through a Senate committee on Wednesday, with a full floor vote in the upper chamber expected on Thursday. Once the GOP supermajorities finish up, state employees and lawmakers will be safe once again from independent investigations of public corruption in state government.
The new ethics rules would also have restricted lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, set new limits for campaign contributions, and made it harder for former state officials to move into lobbying roles. A narrow majority of voters approved the reforms after months of heated back-and-forth between the state chapters of two national organizations with wildly divergent ideas about the effort to restrict private influence in public affairs.
Opponents and supporters of the ethics reform measure received most of their funding from out of state. Guess who wants to get rid of these pesky ethics boards? Americans For Prosperity (Koch Bros), who else? The supporters of the measure were funded by a group known as Represent.us, a Massachusetts-based anti-corruption group. The Kochs painted the pro-reformers as outsiders. Since their Koch tentacles are everywhere, they are always the home team.
South Dakota, a state wrought with two scandals that ended in murder or suicide or both, was badly in need of reform. The Washington Post explains:
The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity recently ranked South Dakota 47th in the nation for accountability, largely because of its lax lobbying laws. “Little to none of [state legislative and lobbyist interaction] is reported to the public in any detail,” the report said.
Proponents of the ethics commission say South Dakota has earned its “F” rating on integrity. The state has been wracked by two major ethics scandals in the past two years: Investigations into misuse of the federal green card program for wealthy immigrant investors and the theft by a private company of more than $1 million of federal grant money to help Native Americans get ready for college.
As a grim aside, people implicated in both scandals either committed suicide or murder or both.
In March of 2016, the small community of Platt, S.D. was rocked to its core when Scott Westerhuis shot his wife and four children, set the house on fire and turned the gun on himself, after being implicated in a scandal involving the theft of monies allocated to scholarship funds for Native Americans. However, many who worked with Scott and his wife, Nicole claimed he was not in jeopardy of losing his job. That makes this whole sordid tragedy rather suspicious, and even more sinister knowing that the Koch brothers had a role in the entire process.
The other scandal happened just before the 2014 midterms and threatened to railroad the Republican candidate for Senate, who won easily by over 50% beating the Democratic candidate who only garnered 29% of the vote. The scandal involved obtaining questionable green card visas, known as EB-5 visas, which began in 1990 to help ease unemployment in rural areas.
This involved the Republican candidate, Mike Rounds, who's the former governor of the state. The scandal became public last fall, after one of Rounds's former cabinet officials committed suicide. It turned out that he was facing a likely indictment for "diverting" (i.e., stealing) $550,000 in state funds when he killed himself.
On October 21, it became clear that before Rounds left office, he found out that one of his Cabinet officials (the one who later committed suicide) was going to work for a consortium of EB-5 visa holders who'd invested in a shady beef plant. But that didn't stop Rounds from signing off on a big loan from the state to the beef plant — which the Cabinet official had proposed (and eventually went to the ex-official's own pockets).
But don't worry, the GOP emerged victorious for two reasons: First, the fight was labeled home team vs. outsiders. Apparently, AFP/Koch money was viewed more favorably as the home team while the Democratic group was painted as the Carpetbaggers. The Kochs know how to fight dirty and they play to win. This win will likely usher in an era of corruption that will certainly mirror Trump's government. The 2nd Reason? The numbers favor the GOP. Republicans in the legislature number 89, while the Democrats only amount to 16. That's unwinnable in this era of a red wave of voters who seem to be content voting against their own best interests, a lot like the majority of Trump voters.
***UPDATE: On Thursday, Jan. 26, the GOP members halted the vote on the matter until next week. The Governor wants to get the repeal signed as quickly as possible. He works for the Kochs, of course he does.