Lawmaker: Letting taxpayers know about Legislature’s votes ‘a waste of time’

I had to read Anna Jauhola’s story about SD legislative votes twice. At least one state lawmaker is working pretty hard to keep certain votes taken in Pierre off of the internet, at least in any easily accessible way.

Rep. Stace Nelson of Fulton wants his constituents to know how he voted on a key bill regarding the employment of illegal immigrants. His fellow legislator, Chuck Turbiville of Deadwood, calls posting lawmaker voting records online “a waste of time and resources.” Really? Really.

Then Turbiville goes on with some half-baked commentary about how Nelson hasn’t followed the “chain of command” in trying to make our state lawmakers’ votes easier to find by their taxpayers and constituents. What a bunch of baloney. The chain of command, last time I checked, ended with the voters who elected you all to the Legislature.

Here’s the “in the weeds” explanation of what’s going on, based on my 6-plus years of knocking around the Capitol hallways, press room, committee rooms, House, Senate, etc.

Jim Fry, head of the Legislative Research Council, is an employee taking orders from 105 bosses, but the legislative leaders – like Turbiville – are the top bosses, and so he does what they say. He’s a soldier and is not at fault in this. In Anna’s story, he did his best to explain the procedure and what happened here. Good for him. Many others would simply not talk.

Despite efforts by Rep. Turbiville to minimize the importance of a smokeout vote, this is far more than a mere “procedural” vote. (The SD Legislature takes few “procedural” votes. They really don’t have the time that Congress does to dither around with these matters. Bills go to committee, which is almost always a straightforward process. Then they go to the floor. Rinse, repeat.)

A smokeout is unusual. There are a handful of them each session, and they are always taken on controversial bills.  Smokeouts are an attempt by the full House or Senate to reverse the decision of a committee to kill a bill. If it fails, it is the only vote most legislators will ever cast on that bill. And so it was with HB1198.

How lawmakers vote on smokeouts is indeed of interest to many constitutents/taxpayers/campaign contributors.

Smokeout votes are not, as Nelson discovered, posted along with all other actions taken on that bill.  (Type the bill number – “1198” – into the search box if you follow the link. It doesn’t take you directly to a bill record. Another loophole?)

Reading the official record of the bill online, one would never know that a smokeout had even taken place.

It is true that votes on smokeouts are recorded online in the House and Senate journals, and what easy navigation and reading that is for folks. As someone who has spent my fair share of time navigating the ins out outs of the mostly fabulous legislative website, it took me a little while to find this particular smokeout vote. (The SD Legislature’s website is, as a whole, a great example of what a government website can and should be. It appears that Rep. Nelson has found what some might call a loophole.)

Even when I found the House Journal in question, by guessing which day this smokout might have occurred, I had to copy and paste the Journal’s contents into a Word document and searched for the bill number –  “1198.” Otherwise, I was faced with reading thousands of words with lots of “Also, Mr. Speaker” entries. (See the relevant section of the House Journal below. Turbiville, as it turns out, voted against bringing this bill to the floor for a vote by the full House.)

There is an obvious effort to not place these smokeout votes online. And tucking them amongst thousands of words that make up each day’s journals where virtually no one would find them does not count, no matter how many times Rep. Turbiville says it.

I recall overhearing a hallway discussion when the Legislature first started streaming and archiving audio – a wonderful thing, indeed. But there were some committee chairpeople who wanted the ability to turn the audio on and off at their discretion depending on the sensitivity of what was being said and by whom. Oy. Thank goodness those folks lost the argument, and South Dakota’s voters enjoy the full audio record of our legislative proceedings.

Let’s remember, lawmakers are the elected representatives of the people in our democracy. Our governments are supposed to be open to the people at all levels.

With that, here is a screen snip of the House Journal; this is the part that recorded the smokeout vote. (I’ll buy lunch for anybody who can find this on the LRC website – and who also will travel to Rapid City for a lunch date.)

The smokeout vote
HB1198 smokeout vote – Turbiville voted “nay”

2 thoughts on “Lawmaker: Letting taxpayers know about Legislature’s votes ‘a waste of time’

  1. You click Current Legislative Session, then Chamber/Committee, then House, then Journals, then scroll down to 2/15 (which I guessed based on seeing that HB1198 was killed on 2/14), then scroll down to Motions and Resolutions, where it’s the first item. Or a quick Ctrl-F “1198”.

    • Alright. So when are we on for lunch? (Also, thanks for the Ctrl-F reminder. I think I used that function once in the late 1990s or so.)
      Also, I rest my case on the bigger question.

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