Ode to Our Citizen Legislature
Rep. Will Mortenson (R-Central South Dakota)
March 14, 2023
For 134 years, South Dakota has counted on regular citizens to do the business of governing our state. We have rejected attempts to create a full-time legislature. State legislators don’t have media teams or full-time, political staff. We come to the Capitol, consider each issue, and apply our best judgement. We have regular jobs and go back to them when the legislative session wraps up in early March.
Our South Dakota system still works. The Legislature remains close to the people. We return home each weekend for cracker barrels or to hear from constituents at the grocery store or at church. When we receive emails from constituents, it is actually the legislator reading the email and responding. When we get calls, we return them, usually from our cell phones. In South Dakota, we still have a true citizen Legislature.
This year, we worked through the 462 bills and joint resolutions placed before us, just like we do every year. Each one of these bills and resolutions got a full and fair hearing, at which any person can appear and testify. These hearings are always broadcast on the internet and archived. That is unusual for state legislatures. Many other states do not require hearings, even fewer broadcast and record the proceedings, and very few allow any person to testify without registering in advance. After these hearings, each bill was either passed or was defeated by a recorded vote. All this information is saved at www.SDLegislature.gov. I’m proud of our transparent process and will protect the guarantees that all bills receive hearings and that those hearings are available to the public immediately.
So – what did our citizen-led process produce this year? We adopted Governor Noem’s recommended budget. She proposed increases for educators, nursing homes, and state employees, as well as targeted increases making tuition free for National Guard members, constructing prisons, and replacing old and outdated software systems that serve all of state government. In February, both the Governor’s staff and the Legislature’s economists advised us that revenues were continuing to come in strong, so we could afford to give teachers, nursing homes, and state employees a little more funding. The Legislature also set aside money to get ready for the Medicaid Expansion costs that will be coming in a couple years. Finally, the budget we adopted accounted for a $104 million sales tax cut, similar in size to that which the Governor proposed. The budget followed the Governor’s blueprint and added prudent investments for schools, nursing homes, and state employees. It saved money for known expenses in the future. South Dakotans should be confident that their budget is fiscally responsible and takes care of our obligations, all while cutting taxes by more than $100 million.
Beyond the budget, we made real strides in college affordability, addressing workforce shortages and helping those struggling with mental health and suicide. We passed bills to protect the public and back law enforcement. We made thorough improvements to our election system. We defeated needless laws and avoided creating a slew of new government programs. It was a productive, workmanlike effort from the 2023 Legislature.
Our nation’s founders had a vision for how the United States was supposed to be governed: by leading citizens from each state, taking a few months out of their year to come together and pass a limited set of laws before returning to live under those laws. Where Congress veered off course, South Dakota stayed steady. Our Legislature is comprised of farmers, educators, law enforcement, businessmen, and everything in between. We are parents and grandparents. We serve on charitable boards and coach youth sports teams. We don’t have dozens of staffers or media strategists. We’re just regular South Dakotans who come to the Capitol for nine weeks and do the people’s work. This year, I’m proud to say, we got the job done.