Guest Column: Ode to Our Citizen Legislature by Representative Will Mortenson

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 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well as targeted increases making tuition free for National Guard members, constructing prisons, and replacing old and outdated software systems that serve all of state government.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.

11 thoughts on “Guest Column: Ode to Our Citizen Legislature by Representative Will Mortenson”

  1. Will Mortensen fulfilled the trust his caucus placed in him when they elected him the majority leader. The excellent cooperation within the majority party in the House and the excellent working relationship between the House and Senate are a tribute to the excellent leadership that Will provided throughout the legislative session.
    Well done, young man!

  2. Don’t break your arm as you attempt to give yourself a pat on the back….or was it “Pride cometh before the fall.”?

  3. Pat, any commentary on the public feuding between the Governor and leadership (particularly Schoenbeck, but she called out Mort by name too)?

  4. Do we know how little Will feels about the citizen convention-goers going to convention every other summer and getting the job done? Does he show such reverence for that process?

  5. I agree in principle and the concept of a citizen legislature, however in practice it doesn’t work out so fine.

    Many legislators are employed by organizations that have major influence over legislation.

    Many legislators engage in the revolving door between being elected and being employed as lobbyists, essentially making the legislative process a full-time career anyways.

    Citizens who go to the Capitol are often shewed away by legislators, whom cite “we don’t have enough time to do that” or “come back next year” or “that’s just not how it works around here”.. yada yada yada.. “not ready for prime time” how many times have we heard that?

    And for the legislators who aren’t independently wealthy, retired, bought their seat via fundraising for the party, or put in their seat by the elites because they’re loyalist-follow-the-leader types who will shut up and listen to leadership and do whatever they’re told – the average every day working folks who aren’t blindly loyal to party or special interests – are either, isolated, ignored, or worse, bullied into submission or bullied into irrelevance – unless they play the games expected by leadership and party elites.

    Legislators often pass the buck to summer studies or year-round task forces to “do the research” dodging the necessary work to make tough decisions or tackle issues of substance, instead, doubling down during their precious 6 weeks to broadcast weird fringe issues that only serve to make news headlines and help raise more money.

    Alas, how about the one Senator who has gotten involved in legislative races all across the state to hand pick his chosen ones whom can reliably serve the cabal of special-interests that back them?

    I wish I could accept the notion Rep. Mortensen offers, that it’s a bunch of fine public servants showing up to do the people’s work – but the reality I’ve seen is not so innocent and respectable. There’s so much horse-trading and gamesmanship it’s a mini swamp full of mostly wannabe politicians who outnumber the truly public-serving citizens.

    If they’re not career politicians why are so many running until they’re termed out, only to switch chambers and go back and forth – or work cushy jobs in state government before/after getting elected..

    Cheers to our citizen legislature!

  6. Why do they work so hard to convince us they are looking out for the people?

    What’s that Native saying about nothing is as eloquent as a rattlesnakes tail?

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