Winds of Change in the Mount Rushmore State

By: Bethany Bostron

Voters in the unassuming prairie paradise of South Dakota will have the opportunity this fall to decide whether the state should create a new public finance system. The state usually flies under the national radar, so when it peeks its head above, you want to pay close attention. The question will be posed as Initiated Measure 22 – “An instituted measure to revise State campaign finance and lobbying laws, create a publicly funded campaign finance program, create an ethics commission, and appropriate funds.” According to State Attorney General Marty Jackley, the measure revises State campaign finance laws by limiting contribution amounts to political parties, political action committees, and candidates running for legislative, state-wide, or county office. The main portion of the plan creates a state-funded campaign finance program. Statewide and legislative candidates who agree to certain limits on campaign contributions and expenditures are able to participate in the funding program. Each registered voter is then assigned two $50 “credits” that he or she is free to assign to any participating candidate. Funding for the program comes from a “State general-fund appropriation of $9 per registered voter,” which is not allowed to exceed $12 million at any given time. An ethics commission is also created to administer the credit program and enforce state law. An additional measure prohibits high-level officials and government employees from lobbying for two years after leaving the government and limits lobbyists’ gifts to officials. The initiative is effectively an overhaul of the current system and Attorney General Jackley cautions voters that “the measure may be challenged in court on [state] constitutional grounds.”

Proponents of Initiated Measure 22 are focused on the current lack of state lobbyist restrictions and the need for a strong body with the ability to enforce state ethics laws. They claim that the new program will create a transparent system where small donations from voters will allow candidates without big name connections to run viable campaigns for state office. Initiated Measure 22 is being promoted by South Dakotans for Integrity, a bipartisan organization which is co-chaired by former Republican State Senator Don Frankenfeld and former Democrat State Representative Darrell Solberg. Opponents claim the measure allows politicians to take tax dollars away from public projects such as roads and schools in order to fund their own campaigns. Opponents are also concerned about the personal privacy implications of creating the publicly-funded system. Conservative organization Americans for Prosperity is leading the push to defeat the measure. Some tout this effort as an attempt to keep the public from knowing who is funding their state politicians. However, the main concern of Americans for Prosperity-South Dakota is that “revealing donors’ identities could subject them to threats and intimidation and drive them away from funding advocacy groups.”

While the system envisioned by Initiated Measure 22 may seem radical to some, there are currently 13 states that provide some form of public financing for state campaigns. The state program located geographically closest to South Dakota is the Minnesota partial funding plan for statewide and legislative offices. Only four states (Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, and New Mexico) offer fully-funded public campaigns. However, New Mexico’s plan was recently bailed out by the state Board of Finance because the plan did not have adequate funding to cover all of the qualified candidates.

It’s difficult to tell where South Dakotans will fall on this issue. Initiated Measure 22 contains many different provisions and individual voters may agree with some aspects while disfavoring others. If the initiative were focused solely on regulating lobbyist gifts and former government officials, it would likely be much easier to convince a majority of the Mount Rushmore State to support the initiative. However, the initiative in its entirety is a pretty radical departure from current state law. Proponents are attempting to pass lobbyist restrictions, ethics enforcement, donor disclosure, and a publically-funded campaign system all in one fell swoop. The contest may ultimately come down to which side is able to best market the initiative and motivate individuals. Voters tend to disfavor long and complicated measures, so punch lines will be key. There are also 10 separate citizen-initiated measures on the South Dakota ballot this fall, which may be too many for the average voter to consider and may lead to a majority of “no” votes. If the package is able to pass, it will serve as a framework for other states who wish to attempt state campaign finance law reform. However, a passed initiative will likely not be the end of the story in South Dakota. As Attorney General Jackley cautioned, the system would likely face legal challenges and lead to a decision by the State Supreme Court on the ultimate constitutionality of the proposed system. In what is already an extraordinary election season, keep an eye on South Dakota and Initiated Measure 22.

 

Full text of the proposed act.

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