PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Should the Legislature’s panel that oversees state government’s operations have independent power to issue subpoenas as part of its investigations?
State law currently requires the Government Operations and Audit Committee to get approval from the Legislature’s Executive Board before issuing a subpoena. That can be a time-consuming process because the two panels operate on different schedules.
Last year’s GOAC members voted unanimously to ask the Legislature to lift that requirement. That request went before the 13 members of the House State Affairs Committee on Friday. The bill died on a 9-3 vote.
GOAC in past years became increasingly significant, digging into issues such as misspending in the state’s GEARUP program for Native American students and Governor Noem’s interference on behalf of a daughter seeking a higher real-estate appraisal certification.
Representative Randy Gross, an Elkton Republican, was GOAC’s chair the past year. He testified for the change Friday. He said GOAC originally had independent subpoena authority. The requirement to seek the Executive Board’s ratification was added several years ago because a GOAC member wanted to frequently use subpoenas.
“The real issue on an ongoing basis is timing,” Gross said. “Before you know it, half of the interim is gone before you actually have a subpoena.”
Jordan Mason of the South Dakota Freedom Caucus Network also testified in support.
No one testified as an opponent.
Representative Becky Drury, a Rapid City Republican, asked how many subpoenas had been issued in the past term. Gross said one, and the witness that the committee sought — state Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman — voluntarily submitted the documents regarding Kassidy Peters, the governor’s daughter, without the need to use the subpoena. “So it’s not a common or frequent occurrence by any means,” Gross said.
The Legislature added the Executive Board ratification in 2018. Its prime sponsor was then-Senator Deb Peters, a Hartford Republican who chaired GOAC. She was at odds with another member of GOAC, then-Senator Stace Nelson, a Fulton Republican, over how far the committee should go in its GEARUP probe.
The Senate approved the final version of the 2018 ratification legislation 19-16, with Nelson voting against it, and the House of Representatives supported it 50-15.
Gross was asked Friday what would prevent a GOAC member from wanting to frequently issue subpoenas again if the current legislation passed. The legislator could be removed from the panel, he said. “One individual should not take actions that end up penalizing the committee, in my opinion,” Gross said.
Representative Gary Cammack, a Union Center Republican who’s been on the Executive Board, suggested the requirement served as a check-and-balance on GOAC. Gross answered that the underlying issue remained timing. Cammack said the Executive Board has the ability to call a meeting at any time.
Representative Kirk Chaffee, a Whitewood Republican, asked whether one of the panels oversees the other. Gross said GOAC and the Executive Board are established separately in state laws. “It does not spell out that GOAC reports to E-Board,” Gross said.
“I don’t think it’s one over the other,” said Representative Will Mortenson, a Pierre Republican who chairs the House State Affairs Committee.
Representative Hugh Bartels, a Watertown Republican, said most of the Executive Board members are elected by their respective chambers. He served on GOAC in 2018 when the change was made. “It was a problem we were working through,” he said. “Part of the method was to bring an elected board of the Legislature to approve the subpoenas.”
Cammack moved to kill the bill. “I believe GOAC does a good job of their appointed purpose but I also believe the Legislature works best if we work under a system of checks and balances,” he said.
Representative Rocky Blare, an Ideal Republican, agreed. He said GOAC has been performing well. “They’ve been fantastic. I believe checks and balances are appropriate here,” he said.
Representative Jon Hansen, a Dell Rapids Republican, disagreed. “I do think the timing problem is a concern,” he said. “I tend to trust the committee. I understand there were problems in the past and that’s why the law is written as it is today.”
Hansen said the subject of the subpoena can lobby the Executive Board members to not ratify the subpoena. “I don’t like that aspect,” he said.
Mortenson said the system seems to work well. “There’s been one request, it was granted and the subpoena not issued,” he said.