February 21, 2008

Behind Closed Doors

How morbidly fitting that the death knell for an attempt to modernize South Dakota open records laws should be determined days earlier behind closed doors.

Apparently that’s what happened this week in Pierre when the House State Affairs Committee, chaired by Representative Larry Rhoden of Union Center, heard open testimony from six proponents of SB 189. They also listened to a single opponent, Jeff Bloomberg of the Bureau of Administration. The measure had already passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

Bloomberg’s last minute sandbag job in the House committee probably wasn’t even necessary. We’ve been told that a closed caucus of House Republicans – days earlier – allowed lobbyists against the bill to wax eloquent in their opposition. When the Wednesday morning public hearing came, SB 189 was pushed to the back of the committee agenda, allowing Chairman Rhoden to frequently chide proponents to hurry along with their testimony because of the “tight schedule.” Despite crossover Republican support, the bill was stopped cold on a 7-6 vote.

At the end of the hearing, Rep. Rhoden gave an almost gleeful benediction, harkening back to his displeasure – or “heartburn” as he put it – over an incident involving the release of public records some time back by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Black Hills Monitor has often criticized the Rapid City Journal, and we’re not always a big fan of the Argus-Leader. Alas, this seemed to be more of a grudge match between the Argus-Leader and Governor Mike Rounds. The Governor won this round. The media got its ears pinned back.

But the real loser was open government and the people of South Dakota.

While virtually all other states have modernized their laws with a presumption of openness for public documents, South Dakota continues to muddle along with a restrictive and confusing set of laws. SB 189 was a good measure, championed by Senator Nancy Turbak Berry of Watertown. Proponents promise to be bring the issue back next year.

Perhaps our biggest disappointment was with Rep. Chuck Turbiville of Deadwood. Our conversations with him led us to believe that he would give the measure a fair hearing. In retrospect, we didn’t know that a “fair hearing” would include a closed GOP caucus meeting with die-hard opponents of the bill.

It was a sad day for open government.

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