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South Dakota Lawmakers Set To Repeal Recent Ethics Reforms


Let's report on calls to drain the swamp of political corruption in South Dakota. Last fall, voters approved political reforms in that state, reforms including public financing for candidates and an independent ethics commission. Later today, South Dakota lawmakers are expected to repeal those reforms. They say it's an emergency. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Here was one big selling point for the ballot initiative last fall - South Dakota's status as the only state that lets lobbyists give politicians unlimited, undisclosed gifts.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: 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.

OVERBY: The initiative drew 51 percent of the vote, an apparently bipartisan call for change, as Donald Trump won the state in a landslide. But now South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard says he expects to sign the bill repealing Measure 22. He told reporters he doubts the ethics commission is legal the way it's set up. And he suggested voters hadn't really thought through the public financing.

DENNIS DAUGAARD: 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.

OVERBY: Grassroots activists are defending Measure 22. In this video by Dakota Free Press, organizer Doug Kronaizl talks about a demonstration outside the state capitol in Pierre, S.D.


DOUG KRONAIZL: It was at 11:15 in the morning, 15 degree weather our in Pierre. So - and it was nice to get to meet the supporters in Pierre who are willing to brave that whether to fight for IM22 and the will of the people.

OVERBY: Whatever the people's will in November, the heavily Republican legislature is ready to repeal. First, 23 lawmakers filed suit, and a judge stop the initiative from taking effect. And now - here's the emergency part - legislative leaders say the repeal must pass ASAP. They cite big hurdles to compliance and high costs for the court case. The whole saga has drawn national attention to South Dakota. On the anti-regulatory side, the Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, Va. - it helped plaintiffs win cases last year in Colorado and Utah.

Research fellow Scott Blackburn called the initiative a bait-and-switch, promising to drain the swamp but then suppressing free speech.

SCOTT BLACKBURN: The bait is anti-corruption, right? 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.

OVERBY: And on the anti-corruption side, Represent.Us, a national nonprofit that's been active in South Dakota and several other states.

JOSH SILVER: 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.

OVERBY: Josh Silver is director of Represent.Us.

SILVER: This is one of these rare opportunities for the American people to actually drain the swamp.

OVERBY: That political infrastructure project that's been getting a lot of discussion but not much follow-through.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONO'S "ELY'S HEARTBEAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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