Republican lawmakers put a tax-and-spend brake on South Dakota’s 2022 primary ballot

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre Capitol building legislature

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Voters throughout South Dakota will decide next year whether they want to require a 60% majority for passage of any ballot measure that would start a tax, raise a tax, or cause state government to spend $10 million or more over a five-year period.

What won’t be usual is the timing of that question. People will answer yes or no when they mark their ballots for the June 7, 2022, statewide primary election. That’s a departure from the normal timing of November general elections, when ballot questions traditionally have been presented.

The reason that nearly every other ballot question in South Dakota’s 131-year history has been answered in November is that general elections have attracted a much higher turnout of voters than primary elections. But timing shouldn’t matter, according to the sponsor of the 60% question.

“Decisions are made by those who show up to vote,” Jon Hansen argued to other House members. The Republican super-majority in the state House agreed 51-17 the vote should occur on the primary ballot.

Thursday was the second time the House considered HJR 5003. House members had originally voted 56-12 for a version that said the question should be asked in the general election. But on Wednesday, the Senate changed the timing to the primary 18-17. That meant the resolution needed to return to the House for a decision whether to agree.

Ryan Cwach presented many arguments against it Thursday when it came back to the House. His voice didn’t appear to make much difference. “We know primary turnout is lower. We know people aren’t going to show up,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

Cwach pointed out the conflict that passing the 60% requirement would create with another section of the South Dakota Constitution that covers ratification of constitutional amendments and revisions. That section says, “Any constitutional amendment or revision must be submitted to the voters and shall become a part of the Constitution only when approved by a majority of the votes cast thereon.” Said Cwach, “I don’t know that it’s constitutional, folks.”

Many of the Legislature’s Republicans however see the 60% threshold as a higher wall that could have stopped ballot measures that majorities of voters had narrowly passed in recent years, such as IM 22’s legislative and political reforms in 2016, and Amendment A legalizing marijuana in 2020. Republicans repealed IM 22, although they put many of its safeguards back into law, and Governor Kristi Noem has won a circuit judge’s decision to overturn Amendment A, which is headed now to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Caleb Finck said Thursday that putting the 60% question on the primary ballot would give people a reason to vote even if they didn’t have other nomination contests in their areas. People have a constitutional duty to vote, he said: “Because that’s what we as citizens do.”

Charlie Hoffman said the current situation isn’t fair because a simple majority of voters could levy or raise a tax or obligate state government to spend millions, while the Legislature needs a 2/3 majority in each chamber to do the same thing. He drew a parallel to opt-out votes in local school districts where the threshold for passage is 60%.

“This makes it a little harder for groups to come in and make that happen here,” Hoffman said.

Oren Lesmeister returned to the timing question. He said South Dakota has a consistent history of much lower turnouts in primary elections. “We’re going to let 30% of the population dictate to the other 70%,” he said.

Steven Haugaard recalled a Sioux Falls school board election that had only 4% turnout even though the district’s budget was a quarter-billion dollars. “Any time there’s an election, it’s a very important part of the process,” he said. “If it’s important, get out and vote.”

Tim Goodwin said the primary election offered a way to spread out ballot questions so that older people wouldn’t be as intimidated by the voting process. “If somebody doesn’t go vote, shame on them, not shame on us,” he said.

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