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Legislators as Weekend Warriors
Feb 20, 2013
The South Dakota Legislature is fascinating. It's also fast. In 40 days in winter, we see bills come up for hearings with less than 24 hours' notice. Sometimes committees suddenly and drastically revise bills (the infamous "hoghouse"). Pro or con, legislators and interested citizens have little chance to review the new bill text, conduct further research, and share information to help the Legislature craft good policy.
The current condensed winter schedule also makes it hard for many working folks to serve as legislators. Most employees can't take that big a block of time off.
So what would happen if we changed our Legislature's calendar to look more like the National Guard's:
- The Legislature meets one weekend a month for ten months, January to October.
- Legislators meet for an additional one- or two-week session at some point during the year.
That schedule would give us the same 40 legislative days that we currently have. But it would produce several advantages:
- Legislators and the public would have more time to research, discuss, and mobilize support or opposition to legislation.
- Weekend sessions make it easier for more citizens to go to Pierre and testify and lobby without missing work.
- More people could feasibly serve in the Legislature. Occasional absences would disrupt work and family life much less than the current schedule, under which legislators come home in March and tackle the two-month mountain of work that accumulated while they were in Pierre.
- Legislative discussions carry on right into September and October, leaving votes in Pierre fresh in the voters' minds as they head to the polls in November.
One significant complication to this plan is the state budget. Our fiscal year starts July 1. We need a budget in place well before that to ensure that hiring and purchasing and public services proceed smoothly. Weekend legislators couldn't wait until Flag Day weekend to pass a budget.
But maybe a weekend Legislature offers an opportunity to improve the budget process. Right now, the Legislature saves the budget until the very end of the session, when things get hectic, legislators are tired, and no one has time to review all the dollar figures. Perhaps we could require the Legislature to address nothing but budget bills during their January and February meetings. They would have to publish a full draft budget by the end of their February meeting, give everyone time to study it, then return in March to pass it. Once the budget was passed, legislators could turn their attention to guns, goats, and golf carts.
So who's up for making our legislators into weekend warriors?