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As it winds to a close, the 2023 legislative session in South Dakota will likely be remembered as the year of the great tax cut debate and for the somewhat surprising willingness of the GOP-led Legislature to reject several proposals from a popular Republican governor.
But many observers and participants in the process are noting another significant milestone this year: a noticeable return to civility, decorum and cordiality in the state Capitol.
Tim Rave is a health care lobbyist who served 13 years in the South Dakota Legislature in the early 2000s, including as speaker of the House and Senate majority leader.
Rave said the legislative process in 2023 so far has been “very enjoyable and smooth” due to the new spirit of civility and cordiality, even during heated policy debates.
“It is markedly different than it has been the past four or five years,” Rave said. “You’ve seen the House and Senate come together, and even when they don’t come together on issues, there’s just a more cordial, respectful debate among the chambers.”
The results of the improved civility are hard to pin down, but observers and lawmakers say policy debates are more respectful and reasoned, that the process is running on time, that there’s a greater sense of bipartisanship, and that the bills ultimately sent to Gov. Kristi Noem for signing are better vetted and stronger in intent and outcome.
Civility in South Dakota politics has improved since 2022 poll
The more diplomatic approach this session comes six months after concerning results from a statewide poll conducted by News Watch in July 2022 showing that a wide majority of South Dakotans felt that civility was on the decline in American society and government. In the poll of 500 registered South Dakota voters, 79% said civility had gotten worse in America in the past five years and less than 3% said civility had improved during that time.
In response, longtime South Dakota officeholder Larry Pressler, who served in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, said at the time that the poll results proved that “it’s the mood of our country, that there’s a mean-spiritedness in the country right now.”
Pressler said a lack of civility “is very unproductive and it makes life miserable.” He said he was concerned that incivility can feed on itself and harm the country in the long term.
“We have to be careful because we’re becoming a very coarse nation,” Pressler said then. “We have a lot of work to do because we’re at a critical point in our nation’s history for some reason, and I’m worried about that.”
South Dakota lawmakers setting the tone for civility
Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, is the majority leader in the House of Representatives and as such plays a large role in setting the tone for how House members will caucus and conduct themselves.
Mortenson, a second-term lawmaker, said he has tried to improve civility and decorum in the House by implementing what he calls “the new old-fashioned way” of legislating.
“It might be new compared to the last four years, but I really view my job and my goal as restoring some of the positive traditions of legislating that we’ve have had in South Dakota for decades, and I think we’re on path to do that,” Mortenson told News Watch. “Being respectful, talking to one another directly and honestly, and solving things the South Dakota way has been a real goal.”
Mortenson has spent about 12 years working in different capacities in Pierre, including in the administration of former Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who is seen by many as a leader of principle and integrity.
“I care a lot about the history of the place and the traditions,” Mortenson said. “They take decades to build and only a few years to destroy, and I came to keep the good ones going if I can.”
Both parties teamed up to censure lawmaker Frye-Mueller
Nearly 55% of the 2022 poll respondents said political leaders were most responsible for setting the tone of civility in the state and nation.
Their concerns seemed manifest early this session when state Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City, was censured by her colleagues after what was reported as an inappropriate heated conversation about “private paternal matters” with a legislative research staff member. Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown, the president pro tempore of the Senate, suspended Frye-Mueller and acted quickly to address the incident. Frye-Mueller was censured, then reinstated to office, and her subsequent legal attempts to strike back at colleagues who supported her suspension have fizzled.
Yet the episode was seen as a personnel matter and not directly related to the lawmaking process, which has generally stuck to debates on policy issues and legislation, according to observers.
Without mentioning Mortenson or any other specific legislative leader, state Sen. Helene Duhamel said stronger leadership in Pierre — especially in the House — has led to greater decorum in the lawmaking process this year.
Duhamel, R-Rapid City, who has served since 2019, said she can feel a more positive, collaborative vibe during the 2023 legislative session compared to her prior sessions in office.
“If the House and Senate get along as they should, then we’re a strong branch of government,” said Duhamel. “You can disagree without being disagreeable, and I just think it’s working better and it just feels better this year.”
Duhamel said policy debates have not been less vigorous, and in fact are perhaps more spirited this year because the state has significant federal money to allocate. It’s also considering building water infrastructure and prisons while at the same time debating tax cut proposals.
Diminished Trump effect with new president in office
Duhamel, who works as a spokeswoman for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office in addition to being a lawmaker, said part of the blame for the great division in our country and state, as well as in past legislative sessions, can be traced to the behavior of former President Donald Trump, who laid derision and derogatory nicknames on people who disagreed with him.
“Part of the problem with the Trump presidency was that it became OK to be disagreeable when you disagree. … It became OK to call people names, and I think that has trickled down and caused us issues in our state,” she said.
“We should be statesmen and we should behave as statesmen. … If you don’t treat people well, how in the world do you ever expect to work with them and find a compromise or have them see your point of view? We have to stop this because it doesn’t work and it’s dividing people and I think we can do better.”
Rep. Oren Lesmeister, a Democrat from Parade, is in his fourth term in the House of Representatives and said he has noticed a clear shift in how lawmakers of both parties have approached one another and the lawmaking process this session.
“There’s a lot more communication, and there’s a lot more civility,” said Lesmeister, the minority leader in the House. “When we have discussions, they’re a lot more in-depth, there’s more listening, and that’s better this year than in the past.”
Lesmeister said leaders in both chambers and in both parties have shown a greater willingness this session to focus more on legislating than grandstanding or trying to draw attention to themselves.
“I would say it comes down to personalities, and in past years we’ve had some big personalities that have kind of fed off of that,” he said. “We’ve still got people with big personalities. But this year, I would say there’s a greater sense that maybe the best way to get to the same place we’re all trying to get to anyway, better than barking and hollering, is to sit down and have a conversation.”
Both Democrats and Republicans talking more at legislature
Leaders on the Republican side of the Legislature, who have an iron-clad majority in both chambers, have reached out to Democrats earlier and more frequently this year, Lesmeister said.
“They’re talking to the other side, trying to get all parties involved sooner and they’ve agreed as far as they can by the time these bills get voted on,” he said. “When we bring bills to the floor, for darn sure, they’ve been vetted more, and that has to do with leadership telling the members, that ‘Hey, before you bring this, know that it could cause some heartburn on the other side of the aisle, so go talk to them and try to share some things.’”
Additionally, GOP leaders — including Mortenson in the House and Schoenbeck in the Senate — have sought to bridge the gap between the more traditional Republicans and the more conservative members of their party, Lesmeister said.
“It’s no secret that the Republican Party that is such a super majority is split, and they’re trying to bring their party together as a whole and not have that fractioning,” Lesmeister said. “So when they have their caucus, they’re trying to keep decorum, where everybody gets a chance to speak.”
South Dakotans benefit with more civility in politics, lawmaker says
One manifestation of the improved civility, Lesmeister said, is that the committee process is working as it should, in that amendments are mostly made there and not on the House or Senate floors where the process can slow to a halt due to debate or even bickering.
“We’re not having those late nights like we had in the past,” Lesmeister said.
Ultimately, the improved lawmaking process in Pierre, and improved discussions on hot topics, is benefiting the residents of South Dakota because stronger legislation is being passed, Lesmeister said.
Lesmeister cited the example that county auditors this session have had input into election-related bills where in the past their views may have been discounted.
“When you’ve got all parties involved, you have better bills, rather than trying to ram something though that opponents totally disagree with,” he said.
Rave attributes the new vibe to strong leadership in the chambers but also to a large group of first-year legislators who have engaged in the process with vigor and a greater reverence for the process of respectful debate. The legislative roster includes 11 new senators and 31 new representatives, though some of those lawmakers served in the other chamber in the past.
“There’s been an influx of some really, really solid new legislators who have brought a whole level of statesmanship,” he said. “They’re willing to work together, to listen and learn. They’re just really strong people who are going to be leaders in these chambers for years to come.”
Nothing personal against Gov. Kristi Noem
Rave added that during his two decades in Pierre as a lawmaker and lobbyist, it hasn’t been uncommon for the Legislature to stand against measures supported by a sitting governor, so he is not taken aback by the rejection of some measures supported by Noem this session.
“You saw people disagree with a particular governor, but it was never personal, it was always about the issue,” Rave said.
U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he spent a week in Pierre in February and met with members of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the Legislature and noted that he sensed cohesiveness this session among the opposing parties.
“I’m hoping that that is the way things are beginning to work in South Dakota,” he said.
Rounds said the public may have a distorted view of the division within Congress, especially in the Senate where Rounds has served since 2014. While national news tends to cover when “someone is misbehaving or being particularly irritating,” the behind-the-scenes sense in the U.S. Senate is that little legislation would get passed unless people from both parties work together, he said.
“The vast majority of people up here really are trying to find common ground because that’s the only way we can get anything done,” Rounds told News Watch.
He frequently dines with both Republicans and Democrats and also attends weekly Bible study and prayer groups with notably bipartisan attendance.
“We don’t make a big deal out of it or anything, but we’re actually friends; we may have different points of view on things, but we’re friends,” Rounds said. “Relationships really do matter up here, and that it’s pretty hard to be mad at somebody when you’re breaking bread with them.”
Civility doesn’t equal effective in South Dakota political circles
Shane Nordyke, a University of South Dakota political science professor who has conducted polls for years on civility and civic engagement, said she has still seen the 2023 South Dakota Legislature focus significantly on social issues rather than substantive policy focused on improving the state and the lives of its residents.
“Certainly the legislation they’re bringing is as divisive as it’s ever been,” she said. “Getting their job done and focusing on the important issues is separate from being nice to one another, and both are important. Just because they’re getting along better doesn’t necessarily mean they’re passing legislation that is making the lives of South Dakotans better.”
Nordyke said there’s an important distinction to be made between debate and disagreement and uncivil behavior, and that it’s a positive outcome if a feeling of greater civility is permeating state government this session.
“The political process is designed to be inherently contentious and there should be opposing factions on issues that should both have a voice and be represented,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it has to be uncivil or mean and nasty, and if that is what people are observing, that there are fewer personal attacks, I think that does matter and that is an improvement.”
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach. Contact Bart at firstname.lastname@example.org.