On regents matter, Democrats show why two political parties are important w/update (and a rebuttal)

The Democrats’ long slide in voter registration in South Dakota continued in the past month, as they fell to 170,057 as of March 1. That’s down more than 600 from the Nov. 8 election total. Republicans gained a little, reaching 253,854, up more than 1,700 since November. And independents remained the top choice in terms of additional registrations, climbing to a record 121,711, an increase of 3,000 since the election.

Despite what has become a years-long decline in voter registration, and despite being down to 10 members of the 70-seat House and six members of the 35-seat Senate in the South Dakota Legislature, there are instances of relevancy for Democrats in our Republican-dominated state government. The latest came Monday afternoon.

Mysteriously, two Senate confirmation votes were deferred on the governor’s latest appointees to the state Board of Regents. There wasn’t any explanation at the time, and the matter became odder when the Senate proceeded to confirmation votes on three appointees to the state Board of Education. The answer came a few minutes after 4 p.m. CT when the South Dakota Democratic Party issued a news release. It said state law had been violated regarding the regents.

The statute, 13-49-2, states:  “No two regents may be residents in the same county and not more than six may be members of the same political party.” The Democrats said that as of 2 p.m. Monday, the minute when the Senate convened for its afternoon work, eight of the nine regents were Republicans.

Somehow none of us in the news media had caught the pattern that had been taking shape for some years. The two most recent appointees were Republicans. Pam Roberts of Pierre had recently been the South Dakota Republican Party chairman. Konrad Adam of Pierre, the student regent, is a son of Karl Adam, a past party chairman.

What happens next wasn’t immediately clear. The regents are a constitutional office in South Dakota, so this matter rose to a higher level than many other state boards and commissions. Perhaps some current regents got busy changing their voter registrations from Republicans to independents The one regent who wasn’t a registered Republican was retired circuit judge John Bastian of Belle Fourche. He was listed as an independent. That means a nine-member constitutional board didn’t have one Democrat and hasn’t had a Democrat for some time.

The system worked in this instance. The minority party pointed out an abuse favoring the majority party. The Senate used its confirmation authority to block two illegal appointments by the governor. It’s a good example of why two relevant political parties are important and why process matters.

UPDATE: The plot thickened a bit Tuesday. Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s chief of staff, produced two relevant sets of documents.

Turns out that regent Kathryn Johnson of Hill City, who was a Democrat when then-Gov. Mike Rounds first appointed her a decade ago, changed her registration to Republican for the 2016 primary elections. Venhuizen said she switched back Monday afternoon after the discovery there were too many Republicans. Her final term expires this year and her successor, presumably a Democrat or independent, will be appointed in the months ahead.

And then there’s the matter of whether the requirements apply to the student regent. Venhuizen provided a 1993 opinion from then-Attorney General Mark Barnett, now a circuit judge, that dealt with the residency of the student regent. Barnett concluded the residency requirement didn’t apply to the student regent. The Legislature changed the statute somewhat in 2007, according to Venhuizen, but lawmakers didn’t clarify whether the requirement applied. The regents’ current legal counsel Guilherme Costa gave Venhuizen his written opinion Tuesday that the attorney general wouldn’t find the same-party requirement applies to the student regent, either.

So all now appears to be good. Both Pam Roberts of Pierre and Conrad Adam of Pierre are back on the Senate calendar Tuesday for confirmation votes.

REBUTTAL: Over at his Dakota Free Press blog Cory Heidelberger takes a swipe at me, saying I exaggerated by saying the Democrats are in a long slide. Well, they are. Compare the 190,905 registered Democrats for the 2006 general election, or the 204,413 registered Democrats for the 2008 general election, to the steadily declining counts since then. Here’s a link to the those figures. You’ll find the numbers for Republicans and independents there too.

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About Bob Mercer

I am a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News, the Black Hills Pioneer, the Mitchell Daily Republic, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Rapid City Journal, the Watertown Public Opinion and the Yankton Press & Dakotan. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre, Yankton and Rapid City papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the seven papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

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