Snorting for Truffles

by Tiberius Gracchus on January 13, 2016

The 2016 session of the South Dakota Legislature is well underway and we are already seeing hoards of well-funded representatives from interest groups arriving in our state capital. They fly in to Pierre Airport on those private jets that are normally strangers to our runways. They walk through Mustang Aviation and head off to their luxury hotels to drop off bags and prepare for battle. The city’s restaurants and bars are filled every night with these out of town professionals, huddling together to speak of their missions to lobby for certain changes to South Dakota law.

In this way our legislators are thereon cajoled, hounded, publicly ridiculed, and threatened politically so as to persuade them to perform in our hallowed halls in the way these lobbyists demand. Now remember that these legislators represent the interests of the people of South Dakota and are directly accountable to their voters. But they’re often out in the cold for public support, when the crisis is greatest, and potentially vulnerable to attacks launched by self-interested lobbying organizations.

The motivation that underpins all this expense and professional effort in lobbying is, of course, very considerable. The people of South Dakota carry the checkbook and many lobbyists are sent in with the direct purpose of placing immense pressure on them to expand government in a myriad of ways which serve their political or financial purposes. Examples of recent undesirable initiatives that have been energetically promoted by lobbyists include, for instance, the dominant role which liberal education groups have played in shaping the content of Common Core education at K-12, with very little sensitivity shown to regional cultural differences. That is troubling when required subjects on the curriculum mandate require students to: “Give evidence to support climate change,” or, “Explain the Big Bang Theory”. Today lobbyists connected with the gambling cartels are pressing hard for an expansion of video lottery rights in establishments across the state, and others continue to seek the abolition of all, but a couple, of the existing exemptions (mostly benefiting agriculture) to the sales and use tax. And unlike our elected legislators, who have a direct connection to the people they represent, these interest groups typically do not care how much taxes a South Dakotan pays. They do not care about how you wish to raise your children, and they don’t care about how you feel about your guns, religion, or your fishing hole.

The particular danger, in these circumstances, of course, is cronyism, the much feared corruption of the government of our Republic, where the legislators themselves come to no longer represent the people but these public interest groups, unions, or business entities. One way in which this most notably happens is through the much fabled existence of a “revolving door” syndrome, whereby our representatives are persuaded to vote in a certain way, or support a certain set of initiatives, in implicit exchange for a cozy lobbying job when they leave office.

This is not to say that many people, throughout the United States, are not increasingly alert to the danger. Across the last five years alone, a number of U.S. Senators have won elections with platforms and campaigns based specifically on fighting cronyism. Senator Mike Lee, of Utah, is a great example of this new breed of representative. “Free enterprise works—morally and materially—because it aligns the interests of the individual and society,” he said in 2014. “It’s a system governed by an ‘invisible hand’ that rewards the creation of value, and by an ‘invisible foot’ that punishes complacency, especially at the top.” He is fiercely critical of cronyism and the considerable danger to our democracy that the problem represents. Cronyism is, indeed, a key element of the stuff that we Americans supposedly left behind when we gained our independence from Britain over two centuries ago.

But, notwithstanding these instances of electoral progress, there is no room for complacency in the fight against lobbyists and special interest groups; there is an ever present need for vigilance. The people must not hide in the shadows if they wish to protect their interests. Instead we must speak up and say that we support our legislator, when he or she pursues conservative policies, because otherwise that representative of the people might become quite convinced that the silver tongued lobbyist is right, and that they are all alone in their wish to represent the people in the way that they would wish to be represented.

All this is not to say that many of these lobbyists, who come to Pierre, are not well-meaning individuals, who are genuinely determined to make life in our state better. Many of them, however, were raised and schooled in a much different cultural environment to that of the average South Dakotan citizen, and are used to traditions that are alien to our way of life. So they genuinely feel justified, based on conscience, in pressuring for changes in our own state government so that we may be as lucky, in our system, as people in Illinois, or some other state that they call home, are in theirs, where these laws or expansions of government already exist.

In truth, South Dakota is an island of conservative government, with a relatively healthy balance sheet to prove it. Our state government rules for the common interest, most the time, based on loyalty among neighbors in a community where everyone knows everyone else. But when our legislators go to 500 East Capitol Avenue they are suddenly bombarded with petitions from lobbyists. For every call or email they receive from actual constituents, they receive a hundred from paid campaigners. Representatives’ voicemails are filled with the incessant demands of those who are paid to influence them. If we are to redress this balance, South Dakotans must make it a sport or a hobby to engage in politics. This is indeed essential if they wish to see their children grow up in a state they recognize and are proud of.

Right now, urgent calls from lobbyists include those for the initiation of both a new state corporate tax, and a new state income tax (some actually advocate both). They seek to change the way we distribute government spending and the total amount of tax we levy, and to change the way our children learn in schools. In fact, there must be literally hundreds of life changing bills that have been thrown on the desks of our legislators. It is difficult sometimes for those who we send to Pierre as our representatives to resist these calls and this pressure.

What a legislator needs in these circumstances from constituents are basic things to indicate support for conservative policy positions. These may include simply writing a letter to a newspaper editor, making a blog posting, organizing a rally, contributing to an online discussion, or making any public statement that can serve the purpose of proving that the embattled legislator is not alone.

Another thing that we would benefit from, in our struggle against special interests, is a better system of checks and balances within government to head off nefarious influences. We live in a state where ethics commissions, Inspector Generals, and other public mechanisms, which might otherwise protect our citizens from abuse at the hands of rogue government officials, are largely nonexistent. The reasons given to the people for governmental disinterest, when it comes to providing these protections, come down to the fact that we haven’t caught enough trouble makers in the past, which necessarily means that they must not exist today. It is almost as if the human frailties, that such political machines as Tammany Hall thrived upon could never manifest themselves here on the Great Plains! Recent examples of possibly questionable conduct, including the EB-5 affair, and the GEAR UP/Mid Central scandal, both of which involved Department of Legislative Audit findings of wrongdoing, and temporarily raised the profile of government ethics, seem to have been overlooked by those who claim that the initiation of more robust checks and balances, to protect our liberties, are not needed.

Admittedly, Governor Daugaard, among some others, has taken modest steps to promote a more transparent government, including recent (limited) freedom of information initiatives. But I suggest strongly that if we do not create more sophisticated and independent safeguards to fight against cronyism in government, that are genuinely free from political blow back, then South Dakota citizens will continue to be victims of silent crimes, and even what amounts to political corruption. There are current initiatives, apparently, on the cards, to examine whether the Department of Legislative Affairs’ authority to examine government records should be further enhanced, or whether the Attorney General should be mandated in any way to confer more routinely with those tasked with the business of Legislative Audit. But these initiatives arguably still do not go far enough. South Dakota needs an Inspector General with wide ranging powers to stamp out abuse.

The majority of South Dakotans are intelligent and freedom loving individuals. They do not choose to live in our great state because they seek a way of life such as that which exists in Los Angeles, New York or Philadelphia; instead, they choose to carve out a unique and robust lifestyle in a part of the country where independence reigns.

And likewise, the South Dakota state government, our state government, is not intended to be the preserve and dominion of those who do not understand our rare people, or even wish to understand who we are in many cases. We do not wish to fear a state government that no longer represents our ideals nor protects our guaranteed inherited rights to property, family, and self-protection. We do not wish to read in our newspapers about how our state treasury is facing overwhelming debt through established entitlement programs, bureaucracy, corruption, and out of control spending.

Certainly the federal government today is in no way friendly to diversity of thought, among the many stars in the United States flag, as is evident from its own increasing power grabs over state resources, rights, and income, not to mention the further federal mandates that impose intolerable burdens on state expenditure across a range of areas from health to education. This makes it even more important for all of us to make sure that, when our own representatives go to our state capitol, they can count on us to stand, alongside them, in protecting our deeply held beliefs ourselves.

For ours is a Republic that was never intended to operate based upon the wishes of the elected, but on those of the people that elected them. We the people ought to rule in South Dakota, under God, and it’s up to us citizens to ensure that we continue to do so.


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