Random thoughts on some of the extraneous nonsense going on in the South Dakota Legislature –
Disclaimers – I am a Partisan and I seek partisan advantage when I deem it appropriate, however partisanship has its place. I believe in the value of conferences and have attended many over the years (and some were political junkets including several resorts and the Republic of China.) The value of conferences I learned over the years, whether political, professional, or volunteer were almost never the subject matter of the meeting but what I learned from my interaction with colleagues and peers. Sharing common experiences with others who had similar duties and challenges was always more beneficial than the conference subject matter.
In the past several months there has been considerable noise about creation of partisan staffs in the Legislature and having the State pay for memberships in non-government Legislative Associations, specifically American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) a Conservative group.
I like conservative groups and think they can impact the process. I just don’t think it is very conservative that the government augments their efforts with public money.
I favor the conservative group Freedom Works that provides public policy solutions to elected officials. For the record - Conservatives Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett organized Freedom Works with strong support from David Koch. I also favor the private work of the American Conservative Union that was founded by William F Buckley, and is currently chaired by a friend and former colleague, Al Cardenas. While I like these groups, they are not deserving of public support.
Paying for partisan legislative staff is a horrible idea. The purpose of the Parties in the Legislature (because we have a two party system) is to organize the government; elect Officers, organize Committees and appoint Committee Chairmanships – that’s it. Since the best I can determine it was a Republican idea to create the partisan staffs, why would the far stronger South Dakota GOP want to extend an organizational benefit to the weaker Democrats by offering them paid staff? If it is a good idea then the stronger and better financed GOP should hire staff from Party funds not Government funds. No reason to help the opposition.
The only contrary yet positive idea heard in this debate was from Rep. Rev. Steve Hickey. Representative Hickey opined there is a need for more legal help from the Legislative Research Council to help Legislators in drafting legislation. Certainly if the need exists it could be provided by additional non-partisan LRC staff like is currently provided.
Concerning Legislative Travel and non governmental memberships –
In the recent past, all out of State legislative travel was furloughed because of shortfalls in State revenues. Obviously the Republic didn’t fall, thus questioning the necessity of such non-essential travel. Senator Shantel Krebs I understand proposed renewing the ban on travel and was defeated by a wide margin.
Now the GOP majority has extended travel and paying memberships to Legislative Associations. In the case of ALEC, they may have handed the Democrats a political issue. More importantly while they find they may have pulled a fast one on the South Dakota taxpayer (over a $50 annual membership) I question why would those that believe and espouse smaller government want to have the State pay for their non government partisan activity?
ALEC may provide important conservative ideas, some of which I support but the State of South Dakota should not pay.
The State Legislature also participates in the National Conference of State Legislatures. While the NCSL is billed as non-partisan, de facto that is not the case. NCSL studies issues and in most cases proposes government-based solutions. Consequently many Conservatives feel that ALEC that looks more toward non-governmental solutions provides a balance.
Thus it seems reasonable to me, if Legislators are going to participate and if the State is going to pay that each Legislator be given a small allowance (maybe $500 or $750) annually and be allowed to use it to attend whichever conferences they choose. The balance of the cost could be borne from their personal funds or their campaign accounts (that in detail provide the source of the income and expense detail.) As always such an idea provides the proverbial slippery slope – that today's $500 annual allowance is next year’s $2500 one.
As noted collaboration can be a good idea but why not let the non- government funded parties pay? Can’t more technology be employed – Webinars, websites, facetime and the like. Private enterprise accomplishes quite a bit these days without travel. With a little creativity and sticking to our conservative free enterprise principles our Legislature might do the same.