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South Dakotans Voted For Tougher Ethics Laws, But Lawmakers Object

Roxanne Weber (left) rallies in support of a voter-approved government ethics overhaul in front of the South Dakota Capitol in Pierre last month. Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he supports efforts to repeal and replace the initiative.
James Nord

Updated 8:45 p.m. ET

South Dakota's citizen-led experiment to "drain the swamp" of political corruption appears to have lasted less than three months.

Lawmakers in the state Senate voted 27-8 Wednesday to repeal the voter-approved initiative and send the measure to the governor. The legislation was given emergency status so it would take effect immediately when the governor applies his signature — which he said he expects to do.

The state's voters supported Donald Trump in a landslide last November. They also gave a 51 percent majority to a ballot initiative called the South Dakota Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act.

It targeted South Dakota's status as the only state that allowed lobbyists to give politicians unlimited and undisclosed gifts. As a campaign ad said last fall, "Measure 22, the anti-corruption initiative, will stop that. No wonder the lobbyists are so afraid of it. They say you can't take your government back. Yes, you can."

But the state's governor and many lawmakers say the voters goofed.

The repeal battle has drawn national attention, as voters endorsed the measure, lawmakers rushed to court to block it, and its backers have demonstrated in 15-degree weather at the state Capitol.

So why the rush to repeal the initiative?

Critics say the gift language is too broad, a problem, they say, for other provisions as well.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard speculated to reporters that voters might not have thought through a provision for public financing of campaigns.

"I think it's possible that many voters were either unconcerned or unaware of the degree to which those dollars would be impacting the budget," said Daugaard.

Some critics say the initiative is a bait-and-switch, promising to drain the swamp but then suppressing free speech.

"The bait is anti-corruption, right?" said Scott Blackburn, a research fellow at the anti-regulatory Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, Va. "The switch is then to target a broad array of charitable organizations, and anyone who falls even close to the purview of talking about something kind of campaign related."

But Josh Silver, director of the national advocacy group Represent.us, which campaigned for the initiative, said the voters accomplished what they meant to do.

"In South Dakota, the people have had an opportunity to do what politicians have been unwilling to do: that is, pass comprehensive laws around campaign finance, ethics, transparency," he said. "This is one of these rare opportunities for the American people to actually drain the swamp."

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Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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