PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — An attempt to let the South Dakota Legislature hire outside legal counsel died Wednesday.
Representative Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, had carried the legislation through the House in his role as speaker.
But the Senate panel didn’t like the proposal.
Senator Brock Greenfield, a Clark Republican, removed all but the first section.
The remaining sentence would have let the Legislature hire someone other than state attorney general only for defending against lawsuits about boundaries of the 35 legislative districts.
The Legislature sets the boundaries every 10 years after the U.S. census is conducted.
Senator Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican, and Senator Susan Wismer, a Britton Democrat, are the only current legislators who served on the 2011 special committee that drew the current districts. New districts will be drawn in 2021.
Bolin, who serves on the state affairs committee, noted to Haugaard that the redistricting committee’s work in 2011 marked the first time in three decades the Legislature didn’t have a court fight challenging the boundaries.
“When you do it right, you’re not going to have lawsuits,” Bolin said.
Greenfield has been a legislator since 2001. He said the House speaker in 2001, Republican Scott Eccarius of Rapid City, worked “tirelessly” to satisfy the American Civil Liberties Union on redistricting, but the Legislature still was taken to court.
“I think lawsuits can happen,” Greenfield said.
That led Bolin to modify his previous statement. “You do it right, you won’t have a successful lawsuit,” Bolin said.
Removing everything from the bill except redistricting led Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert of Mission to ask that the remainder be killed.
Heinert said it now could invite lawsuits.
One of the provisions that Greenfield removed would have allowed the Legislature to hire an outside lawyer to defend a lawmaker.
Haugaard, a lawyer, acknowledged that last year he was sued by a lobbyist. As speaker, he had barred her from being on the House floor at any time, even when it was open to anyone else who wanted to contact a lawmaker.
He wound up having to pay Yvonne Taylor, the executive director for the South Dakota Municipal League, for her attorney’s fees. She had hired David Lust of Rapid City, a former House member.
Earlier in the hearing Wednesday, Haugaard said the National Conference of State Legislatures recently distributed a new manual on redistricting. He said 24 states faced lawsuits on redistricting in the past decade.
“We’re certainly going to have the potential for it,” Haugaard said.
He noted that state government’s executive branch for years has spent many thousands of dollars on hiring outside lawyers and paying lobbyists.
Justin Bell, a Pierre lawyer whose regular job is as a private attorney, appeared on behalf of the state Office of Risk Management and spoke as an opponent.
The office oversees what’s known as the PEPL fund that provides defense and liability coverage for state entities and employees.
Bell suggested the PEPL fund could face higher re-insurance rates if the outside-lawyer bill became law. That’s because the legislator would have two lawyers defending her or him and there wouldn’t be clarity over the strategy.
Bell said the legislation also didn’t designated who would pay the outside-lawyer’s fees or the damages, and it didn’t say who would choose the outside lawyer if one had to be hired between meetings of the Legislature’s Executive Board.
Haugaard replied that the remarks were “a little disingenuous” coming from an attorney hired by an executive-branch agency.
The risk-management office is part of the state Bureau of Administration whose commissioner is appointed by the governor.
Haugaard said taxpayers are paying for executive branch offices to hire lobbyists who testify on legislation but the Legislature can’t hire a lawyer to defend it.
Haugaard said he recently met with state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg about how the outside-lawyer plan would work.
“He’s a friend and does a fantastic job for the state of South Dakota,” Haugaard said.