SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The working-class sincerity of President Trump and his band of Rust Belt revolutionaries will be decided over the coming months. In the meantime, there is a test case for ruling elites and 21st century populists alike here in South Dakota.
Once the bastion of prairie-style Democrats, such as George McGovern and Tom Daschle, this state is now as red as a lazy August sunset. South Dakotans backed Trump by 30 points in November. But they also passed a wide-ranging anti-corruption measure intended to limit the influence of campaign cash and interloping lobbyists.
The establishment is disturbed.
Now the South Dakota legislature has convened, intent on overturning the voter-approved law, officially known as Initiated Measure 22. They’re so concerned they want to invoke an “emergency clause” that would allow whatever is passed to go into effect immediately.
The emergency for South Dakota lawmakers is that voters just expressed deep concern about their ethics. Lawmakers suggest the measure that passed is unworkable, that voters didn’t know what they were doing. The response? Wipe it out.
That is, to put it kindly, tone deaf.
What exactly constitutes an emergency in South Dakota? We don’t have hurricanes here, though we have started naming our blizzards. But the emergency in the eyes of the legislature appears to be severe restrictions on free dinner and drinks. Well … that, and public financing for elections.
Initiated Measure 22 made four significant changes. It lowered limits on campaign contributions for legislative, county and statewide candidates and increased reporting requirements. It installed a two-year ban on lobbying and limited gifts to former state officials. It created a system of public financing of elections under which citizens could assign small amounts of money to candidates of their choosing. And it formed an ethics commission to oversee all this reform.
Immediately after the law passed, two lobbyists resigned from the state transportation commission, citing a conflict, and some lawmakers groused about losing all those goodies. South Dakota lawmakers make a paltry $6,000 a year plus some mileage reimbursement for their trouble, so gratis grub helps pass three months in Pierre, the nation’s second-smallest capital city.
The Republican governor and legislative leaders contend out-of-state interests, who took advantage of cheap media and general isolation, fooled the good people of the state with a poorly crafted measure.
Voters were “hoodwinked by scam artists,” said Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R). The law is clearly unconstitutional and needs to be repealed, state leaders said. Don’t worry; we’ll fix it, they said. Trust us.
But that’s kind of the point: Voters nationally and in South Dakota said they don’t trust the old crop of politicians. For evidence of that, just look at Trump.
South Dakota has a long history of allowing the people to write laws directly. It was the first state in the nation to adopt the initiative option during the height of the populist movement in 1898, as disaffected Midwest farmers fought back against real and perceived monopolies.
Drey Samuelson is one of the chief “scam artists” involved with IM-22. The Nebraska native served as former senator Tim Johnson’s (D) chief of staff for 28 years and co-founded TakeItBack.org, the group that pushed the measure locally with backing from a Massachusetts organization, Represent.us. Putting reforms such as IM-22 allows people to sidestep lobbyists and other influence in ways that would never happen in the South Dakota legislature, Samuelson said.
“The key is that powerful interests can control a legislature fairly easily, but it’s much harder, not impossible, to control the entire state,” he said.
Opponents of IM-22 in the legislature found a sympathetic ear in a circuit court judge, who put the entirety of the law on hold to allow the inevitable challenge to the state supreme court.
That hasn’t slowed the march in the legislature, however, where the phrase “repeal and replace” has found a comfortable home in a new context. This is where it’s instructive for the red-tie crowd in Washington: How far can lawmakers push back against the will of the people?
South Dakotans were influenced by a couple high-profile scandals involving the embezzlement of piles of cash by folks on the fringes of government, contractors who took advantage of a naive — at best — bureaucracy.
The one persuasive rationale the Republican powers that be in Pierre have offered for tossing the whole thing out so urgently is that the state may, honestly, not be able to afford it. The public funding portion of the law is estimated to cost about $5 million annually, but could go up to as much as $12 million. That’s real money is a small state with fewer than 1 million people and no income tax.
A likely pot of money is education funding. “I believe it’s not responsible to use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns at the cost of education,” Daugaard said. “And I’m certain that the voters of this state did not support that.”
The script for repeal of the law seems set. The emergency clause requires a two-thirds vote, which the GOP majority in the statehouse can get just from its own members.
Still, beware the politician who pushes back too far against the will of the people, said Brad Tennant, a professor of history at Presentation College in Aberdeen, S.D.
Despite South Dakota’s rich history with voter-initiated laws, not that many of them have passed, said Tennant, who specializes in politics and history of the Northern Plains. So tinkering with one that actually succeeded is particularly dangerous for lawmakers.
“There are some concerns,” Tennant said, “but if you’re going to change it or replace it you had better give us something better that still reflects the desires the people had hoped for.”
South Dakota is a conservative state for sure, but the populist thread is long. The People’s Party National Convention was held in Sioux Falls in 1900, nominating famed populist William Jennings Bryan for the presidency.
The People’s Party was the product of that 19th century populist revolution.
Bryan lost in 1900, of course. He also lost in 1896 as a Democrat and in 1908, again as a Populist.
Trump did what Bryan never could: Bring what purports to be the people’s agenda to the White House. That same populist enthusiasm hasn’t reached the state capital in South Dakota, apparently.
“If it doesn’t work, that’s one thing,” said Samuelson, the former Johnson aide. “But to immediately repeal it when it hasn’t had a chance to work, that’s dangerous.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly called Pierre, S.D., the nation’s smallest state capital. Montpelier, Vt., is the smallest.