PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The state lawmaker who made the motion for the governor’s proposal for a heartbeat-based abortion ban to be introduced for South Dakota legislators to debate says that no one else on the House committee wanted the panel to be its official sponsor.
Representative Chris Johnson, R-Rapid City, gave his perspective to Capitol reporters during the weekly legislative leadership news conferences Thursday. They came in the wake of the House State Affairs Committee seeing Governor Kristi Noem’s anti-abortion language die, because no one else would second Johnson’s motion for it to be an official bill.
Noem issued a statement two hours afterward saying she was disappointed and the action was unprecedented. Thursday marked the final day for committees to introduce bills.
Johnson answered a question from KELOLAND News about what happened in the committee.
“Your question seems to kind of beg for us to say there was some kind of a group decision on this, that was decided ahead of time. Absolutely not,” Johnson said.
“The fact that I made the motion to introduce the bill and there was no second, should speak to the fact that is what I believe as an individual with my vote, my expression, in that meeting. I personally believe that, I believe in transparency, I believe that what the people of South Dakota don’t know, the pros and cons of this bill the governor wanted to bring,” he continued.
“And so I wanted it be brought out in the open and have that discussion made publicly and everybody get on record as to where they were after hearing the merits of the bill and the disagreement with it. That didn’t happen because there was no second. That’s part of the process. But as to the leader’s point, if there was some kind of group decision, then I think my personal motion defied that. So I think what you had was an aggregate outcome of all the personal decisions of every member of that committee I think you’re seeing. And that’s how I would characterize it.”
Johnson is the House Republican assistant leader. He was referring to comments made just before him by House Republican leader Kent Peterson of Salem, whose face looked tense as he answered the question. Peterson chairs the committee.
“Well, there’s obviously many ways to introduce bills here in Pierre and that was one chosen for that bill. It came in front of our committee. And like anything else, it takes action of the committee. There was a motion, not a second, and it died for lack of a second. Beyond that, it was just part of the process that was undertaken, as we take on these different bills. And that’s how it came to be,” Peterson said.
Peterson said he couldn’t speak for what other members of the committee were thinking at the time. “I know there’s some concerns within the pro-life community as to the implications of this kind of bill, as to what might happen to other things that are out there right now. But for individual members of our committee, I can’t speak for them.”
Another reporter asked Peterson whether it was unprecedented.
“It’s all part of the process. I don’t know if I’ve seen that done before in my time. I also haven’t seen a lot of (committee) bills introduced,” Peterson said. “It happens. I’d have to go back and see how many. It is probably unprecedented, but also an unprecedented issue, as well.
“As I’ve said many times, and I think it was quoted yesterday, every bill gets a hearing. But that’s bills that are introduced. And there’s lots of ways to introduce a bill, and there’s drafts of bills all over the place out there. We have members that have drafts of bills that they didn’t introduce, or decided not to introduce. That’s part of the process.
“There’s lots of ways to introduce bills here. There’s pre-filing before session. There’s the whole time leading up to. There’s committee bills and there’s individuals. I’m not going to suggest one way or the other, but there’s lots of ways to introduce bills here in Pierre.
“I know there’s been lots of ongoing discussions for many, many months on this issue. It’s a very delicate issue, obviously. It’s hard when, you know, South Dakota is very, very right to life, a pro-life state. And any time you have issues like this that divide within this type of issue, it’s unfortunate and it’s really hard. And that’s just the reality of what we’re dealing with here. So, there’s some concern on the part of many that this could affect other things that are out there, and ultimately affect things that could ultimately overturn Roe versus Wade. All of those things were considered and ultimately what happened yesterday happened.”
Johnson added his comments: “And I think the outcome that you’re seeing right now and that you’re asking questions about right now, probably for some of those members — maybe many of them — on that committee was as much of a surprise to them as it was to anybody else, the governor and other people.
“And as I’ve said before, I think it’s unfortunate that we’re here trying to parse the merits of the bill in this press conference, when it should be parsed in a committee. So I’m hopeful that somewhere down the line it can still happen. My motion didn’t tell anybody whether I was for or against the bill. I just thought it should have a hearing. And so that was a starting point. And I think that’s the place where the merits of an idea, whether (South Dakota) Right to Life agrees with it or not, should be discussed publicly, and it’s not for me to represent Right to Life or the governor or anybody with regard to that bill. I can just represent my motion.
Another reporter asked Johnson why not bring the bill then. “I’m asking the same question. I’m one person and one vote, one voice. And that’s the way our committees work. If there’s not support for it beyond my motion, then you’ll have to ask those people,” he said.
The Republican leaders also answered a KELOLAND News question about how COVID-19 has affected the legislative session to this point.
Said Peterson: “We’re dealing with it. We’ve had people in and out basically since we’ve been here, and as you see, the day-to-day work of the Legislature is still happening. The committee structure is moving along. We have some people participating remotely, whether it be in the committee or on the floor. It’s something that we’re dealing with. We’re moving on with the work we have at hand and ultimately getting work done each day.”
Said Senate Republican leader Gary Cammack of Union Center: “We’ve had several individuals who’ve been out for a few days with the COVID. Right now I don’t believe we have one member of the Senate that is missing right now. I’d have to go back and look, but even the folks who were out for that, I don’t know that they’ve missed any votes, and if they did, one or two. So the process we’ve got in place to deal with the COVID, being able to have those individuals vote remotely has been working really well.”
Said Johnson: “I think we’re dealing with it very well and I love seeing how, even when people are home with COVID, they’re still participating. That speaks to really the heart of what South Dakota’s all about. We’re resilient. And I think of any state in the country we probably get up and around and moving and back to work quicker than anybody, any other state, and that’s just part of who we are in South Dakota. We can’t stay out of the game even when we’re down with COVID and I just really admire the folks that even when they’re feeling a little rough they participate in this process and get back to work as quickly as possible.”