PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Several of the South Dakota Senate’s Democrats are expressing opposition to a potential change in who can be on the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee.

Democrat Senator Red Dawn Foster testified Friday against a proposal that would bring the panel into line with other legislative committees regarding partisan balance and Senate Democrats leader Reynold Nesiba then voted against it.

The Republican-dominated Senate State Affairs Committee nonetheless endorsed the change on a 8-1 vote and sent it forward for the Senate to consider.

Republican Senator Lee Schoenbeck said his proposal is intended to change the state-tribal committee’s membership to accurately reflect the Legislature’s elected membership.

The current state-tribal committee has 10 members. Six are Republicans. Four are Democrats. The Legislature has 105 members. There are 94 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

The House speaker and the Senate president pro tem make committee appointments. Schoenbeck, who is Senate president pro tem, said he doesn’t plan to change the state-tribal panel’s membership for the 2023-2024 term. But, he said, a future Senate president pro tem should have that option.

Schoenbeck’s proposal would repeal a sentence from the current law that says, “No more than
three from each legislative body may be from the same political party.” In its place would be two new sentences: “The appointing authority shall appoint members to the committee proportional to a party’s representation in the authority’s legislative body. The minority party in each legislative body must have at least one member.”

Schoenbeck said the change is intended to improve understanding by non-tribal legislators about conditions and people’s ways of life in tribal areas. He said it makes no sense for the committee members to primarily be legislators who are tribal members.

Senator Foster said the state-tribal panel was unique and was created in the spirit of reconciliation. She said legislators from tribal areas bring the perspectives from those areas and that the appointments should be made “regardless of political party.” 

Senator Nesiba asked whether Schoenbeck consulted with any tribal members. Schoenbeck said no because they’re not involved in making committee appointments. Nesiba asked whether the proposal would change the relationship between state government and tribal governments. Schoenbeck said it would and offered that he was “pretty sure” there are “white” legislators who haven’t been to a tribal council meeting.

Nesiba tried to kill the proposal. But his motion died for lack of a second. He is the only Democrat on the Senate committee.

Republican Senator Michael Rohl is the co-chair of the state-tribal committee. He said the change would promote better communication between state and tribal governments. The committee hasn’t seen much success in the past.

“I think this is a step in the right direction,” Rohl said. He added that he’s talked with some tribal members about the proposed change and that some of them agreed it could be a positive move.

Republican Senator Erin Tobin was elected from a legislative district that includes parts of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. “Within the Legislature we have tribal members from outside of tribal districts, and we have Republicans that represent tribal districts,” she said. 

Nesiba said that then-Gov. George S. Mickelson, a Republican, emphasized state and tribal reconciliation during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nesiba said leadership and commitment to the cause of reconciliation diminished since Mickelson’s death.

Schoenbeck said the state-tribal committee didn’t accomplish much during the past two years when then-Senate Democrats leader Troy Heinert was a co-chair.

Schoenbeck returned to his argument that the committee can provide an opportunity for non-tribal members to get a look at tribal life. “I’ve been to tribal council meetings. I’ve represented a lot of Native Americans,” he said.