South Dakota lawmakers introduce hundreds of bills during their annual legislative session in Pierre, and every bill is entitled to a public hearing.
It’s a predictable and transparent system that South Dakotans have come to take for granted.
But it wasn’t always that way. Five decades ago, the Capitol was a more closed-off place, until it was opened up by rule changes in the 1970s.
Secret hearings and pocket vetoes
Terry Woster remembers the way things were before the changes. He got a reporting job for The Associated Press at the state Capitol in 1969. One of his first assignments was covering an interim legislative committee hearing about a proposed overhaul of the state university system.
“I went there, and the first thing they did after they gaveled in was saying, ‘This meeting is an executive session,’ and somebody came over and said, ‘You leave,’ and I didn't know what to do – I was new – and so I did,” Woster recalled.
He went upstairs and talked to his boss. They came back down and argued with the committee chairman. The committee eventually opened its doors.
“But by that time,” Woster said, “the report was over, so really I missed what I wanted to see. But that was not unusual to have those kinds of sessions.”
Woster soon learned that even some lawmakers were excluded from hearings.
“I’d heard that there were often committee chairmen who were very powerful with a lot of seniority before term limits who sometimes would not tell the minority party when the committee meetings were,” Woster said. “And sometimes, occasionally, he wouldn’t tell a member of his own party if he didn’t want that person at the meeting.”
Committee chairs could also stop bills from ever seeing the light of day. Woster said that caused a confrontation in 1970 between lawmakers Frank Henderson and Dexter Gunderson.
“Henderson came over during the House floor session and stomped from the back up to the front and grabbed the speaker by the lapels, Dexter Gunderson, and said, ‘Where’s my bill?’”
Woster said the speaker called a recess, went back to his office and came out with the bill, “which he had just stuck in a drawer and planned to leave it there. They called that ‘pocket vetoes,’ and that was the thing chairmen could do sometimes on committees. They would just not take action on a bill.”
Democrats push changes
Then, during the early 1970s, there was a shakeup in South Dakota politics.
President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal had Republicans reeling nationwide. South Dakotans elected a Democratic governor, Dick Kneip. They also elected a slim Democratic majority in the Legislature.
That meant Democrats, typically a minority in the state, had a rare opportunity. They could organize legislative committees, pick the leaders of each chamber and make the rules.
Democrats elected Gene Lebrun of Rapid City as speaker of the House. He and other Democrats wanted more transparency in the legislative process. So Lebrun said they ran an idea past Republican leader Joe Barnett.
“And he said, ‘You know, we could never do that as Republicans. But if you guys do it, we’ll support you.’ So we did it,” Lebrun said.
The resulting rule changes required a public committee hearing for every bill. The committees had to provide advance notice of their meetings, and they had to record and report their votes publicly.
Lebrun says it was one of the biggest accomplishments during his time in the Legislature.
“I think it caused the members of both parties to be more responsible, because they knew their votes were going to be of record,” Lebrun said. “People were always looking at how they voted in that committee meeting, and the meetings were open all the time, so there weren't any secret deals made in the committee meeting. So I think it made things much more open and transparent, and I think that helped.”
‘Let the sun shine in’
Woster agrees. He remembers the way another lawmaker described the change. Harvey Wollman was a Democratic legislator who became governor. He told Woster that the new rules “threw open the windows of the Capitol and let the sun shine in.”
Woster spent four decades covering the statehouse. He says the transparency rule changes were one of the most important things he witnessed.
“It made it possible for citizens to really know what was going on,” Woster said. “It made it easier for everybody to make their case. That’s one that I thought was just a marvelous advancement for people’s right to know.”
Woster said it might be a little too easy to get a bill heard these days.
“I will confess there were times when I sat in committee meetings waiting for a couple of bills when I thought, ‘Wow, they should never have let this one in.’”
And he said the requirement to hear every bill can clog up the legislative process. But he said that’s OK.
“You know, democracy sometimes takes work.”
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers proposed about 550 bills and resolutions. Each one was entitled to a public hearing during the 37-day session.
-Contact reporter Seth Tupper by email.