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South Dakota Republicans just got rid of the state’s first independent ethics commission

Represent South Dakota spokesman Doug Kronaizl speaks at a rally in support of a voter-approved government ethics overhaul in January. (AP Photo/James Nord)

This post has been updated with the latest news.

South Dakota Republicans just did something that backfired spectacularly for congressional Republicans earlier this year: They got rid of an independent ethics commission designed to watch over them.

Ethics advocates say the situation in South Dakota is even more egregious than the one in Washington given the independent ethics commission was approved by the voters themselves this November.

Along a mostly party-line vote this week, lawmakers passed a bill that repeals that voter-approved ethics reform package. Among other things, it aimed to set up the state's first ever independent ethics commission and put limits on campaign finance and lobbying access. Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) signed the repeal bill into law on Thursday.

GOP lawmakers claimed voters -- who approved the package by 51 percent -- were tricked into the reform package. In his December budget address, Daugaard declared that voters were “hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures.”

Republicans repealed the bill under a "state of emergency," which prevents voters from putting it back on the ballot in the next election.

Grassroots groups who helped get the ethics package approved were outraged. "It is un-American to reject election results, and the people will not forget this," said Doug Kronaizl, a spokesman with the anti-corruption group Represent South Dakota, which led protests on the normally sleepy state capitol against the repeal effort.

They pointed out that the reform package passed with bipartisan support, because there simply aren't enough Democrats in South Dakota.

“Did I agree with everything in Initiative Measure 22?” said state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton (D). “Probably not, but I think it's our job to respect the will of the voters and to fix pieces that may be considered unconstitutional.”

Six Republicans joined with the legislature's 16 Democrats to oppose the repeal, but Republicans have an overwhelming majority in the South Dakota legislature, and Republican lawmakers' opposition to the voter-approved ethics package was fierce.

Days after voters approved the package, 25 GOP lawmakers and a conservative lobbying group challenged the law in court, declaring that voters were tricked into supporting something that could be unconstitutional, for a variety of reasons. A South Dakota judge subsequently paused it from going into effect. Though the judge said some parts of the law could be “saved,” GOP lawmakers decided it was better to start from scratch.

“It would only stand to reason from that logic that we repeal it in its entirety,” state Rep. Larry Rhoden, one of the Republicans leading the repeal effort.

Rhoden said lawmakers are considering replacement ethics legislation and added there was no rush to do something: “We are pretty squeaky clean, and I can say that with a great deal of pride in South Dakota; the ethics among the people that serve the state in the legislature, I would call impeccable.”

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.

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.

Republicans counter that this new ethics commission would not have been able to stop those scandals because they involved misuse of federal, not state, funds.

The whole saga has echoes of what happened in Washington earlier this year, except with a very different outcome for ethics advocates.

On the eve of Congress's first day back in session in 2017, Republicans in control of the House of Representatives pushed a provision that would have gutted an independent ethics office that investigates them. Republicans abruptly dropped the plan after public backlash from their constituencies and two tsk-tsk tweets from then-President-elect Donald Trump.

In South Dakota, proponents of the ethics reform package are out of options to save it. But they are pointing out what, from their vantage point, looks like irony. More than a century ago, South Dakota was the first state in the nation to create a referendum process as a check on its legislature.

This isn't the first time South Dakota lawmakers have tried to change a voter-approved ballot initiative. In 2014, voters passed a ballot measure increasing the minimum wage; GOP lawmakers again claimed voters didn't realize what they had done and passed legislation excluding anyone under 18 from the paycheck boost.

Minimum-wage advocates retaliated, successfully getting a referendum on November's ballot to override the legislature's changes to the law. That referendum passed by 71 percent, and the minimum wage went back up to $8.50 an hour for all workers.

“We think it's pretty clear that the voters don't like when the legislature comes in and messes with our laws,” Kronaizl said.