January 7, 2009


Lorraine Collins has a wonderful way with words -- and her approach to resolutions for the new year seems right on target. We've often opined on open government, and we were delighted to see her suggest improving open government as a reasonable resolution for the 2009 South Dakota Legislature. Here is her column penned for the Black Hills Pioneer:

More than once, I’ve pointed out that January is no time to be making resolutions. Resolutions should be made in the spring of the year when everything seems possible, or perhaps in the autumn, when everything seems necessary. Except for this arbitrary calendar, why do we believe that January begins a New Year and therefore requires New Years resolutions? Some time ago, March was considered the beginning of the New Year. That was in the Gregorian calendar, so I’ve often tried to defend my lack of making resolutions in January by saying, “Well, I still go by the Gregorian Calendar. I’ll get around to this in March.”

This does not necessarily convince anybody, but it gives me an excuse for not suddenly, in the dark of winter, trying to think about reforming myself. However, since the South Dakota Legislature meets in January, I guess they cannot wait until March to think about what they should do to improve their previous performance. So I’ve been thinking about what resolutions the South Dakota Legislature should have.

When making resolutions it’s best to be realistic, not choosing a goal that is clearly going to be unattainable. That just leads to early discouragement and abandonment of the effort. So our legislators should not dream of accomplishing something like making our state rank number one in state support for public education. But how about some more modest goal, like attaining the rank of 47th? That would be an improvement over our present ranking of 50th and it would demonstrate that we’re embarrassed by our current status and are serious about trying to improve ourselves. We might make it only to 48th, but we’d have taken that first step and could feel we were on the right road.

If tackling such a difficult subject as improving state support for education seems too daunting, the legislature could try something else, like improving some other area in which our state ranks last. How about improving our status regarding open government? According to the
Better Government Association, we rank at the bottom there, too.

The BGA ranked states on matters such as laws pertaining to freedom of information, whistleblower protection, campaign finance, open meetings and disclosure of conflict of interest by lawmakers. If a state got a 100% rating in each of these five areas, it would be rated at 500%. South Dakota achieved just 162%. In terms of freedom of information, we actually got a zero. Our highest rating was in laws relating to disclosure of conflicts of interest where we climbed up to 42nd place.

What excuse do we have for being the most secretive state in the union? We do seem to have a penchant for secrecy, I admit. I was surprised to learn recently that state law keeps secret the names of people who hold video lottery licenses. I suppose that 20 years ago when the state video lottery program was started, there may have been some concern about protecting license holders from gambling opponents, though I don’t know why. We don’t hide the owners of liquor licenses because some people are opposed to alcohol. If there ever was any kind of justification for secrecy regarding video lottery, it certainly wouldn’t seem to exist now. And a business that apparently generates over 200 million dollars a year shouldn’t have a lot of secrecy, should it?

I’ll stop my list of recommended resolutions for our state legislators with just these two: get us off the bottom of the list in education funding and in having open and transparent government. That may provide challenge, but if legislators have open minds and stout hearts, I think they can do it.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at collins1@rushmore.com.

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