LRC: “Clean-up on floor three”

The Legislature’s Executive Board wanted change, and change is indeed happening at the highest ranks of the non-partisan, professional staff of the Legislative Research Council. Jim Fry came to work Wednesday as director and left unemployed after he resigned and was told to leave that same day. He is 65. Fred Schoenfeld, the chief fiscal analyst, was prepared to retire June 8, 2014, and instead has been promoted in an interim role as director. That gets the Legislature through the 2014 session while a new director is hired. Schoenfeld is 74. In his final hours as director, Fry told members of the Executive Board that Reuben Bezpaletz, the LRC’s chief analyst for research and legal services, will retire after the 2014 session and the search has started for a successor who will shadow Bezpaletz during the session. He has been with LRC all of his 44-year career. Nearly all members of the research and legal staff are in their late 50s or older, and they have been in their jobs or elsewhere in state government since the mid-1980s (or earlier).

Back in April 2008, (time flies, eh?), Rep. David Lust wrote a guest piece for the Rapid City Journal in which he supported term limits for legislators. Lust, R-Rapid City, acknowledged he would support longer limits than those adopted by South Dakota voters in 1992 of four consecutive elected terms (eight years) in the same chamber (House or Senate), but he said the LRC was the reason that term limits were and would continue to be good for South Dakota. In that paragraph, he wrote:

“The importance of retaining ‘institutional knowledge’ is often mentioned as a reason for repealing term limits. However, the Legislative Research Council is the primary repository of institutional knowledge for the S.D. Legislature. New and veteran legislators regularly consult the LRC in formulating ideas and drafting legislation. More often than not a proposed bill has been explored by past legislatures (both in and out of South Dakota), and the LRC provides immediate and extensive information about it. Given the presence and purpose of the LRC, the argument that we need legislators with vast stores of legislative knowledge is exaggerated.”

Jim Fry said his job stopped being fun three years ago. That was an interesting time for the Legislature. The Senate saw the departures of veterans such as Republican leaders Dave Knudson of Sioux Falls and Bob Gray of Pierre, and newly-elected Gov. Dennis Daugaard called — alone, at first — for 10 percent cuts throughout much of state government, twice as deep as outgoing Gov. Mike Rounds had proposed. The 2010 election also marked the arrival of Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, who brought a different style to the House and in 2012 accused House Republican leaders of conspiring against members. A resolution that contained the word astrological somehow slipped through. Eventually a special investigation was called, run by then-Sen. Joni Cutler, R-Sioux Falls, and over some long hours a lot of laundry was put on the political clothes-line in public testimony.

What’s happened in the past three years is a trend toward more and more secrecy among Republican legislators especially in the House and Senate leadership. One of the complaints against the LRC in the current review was the refusal to send LRC analysts to deliver briefings and answer questions in closed Republican caucuses.  The best example of the secrecy in terms of legislation was the bill creating the South Dakota Jobs programs during the 2013 session. That legislation reached far and ultimately might be very good for South Dakota, but it was formed almost entirely in secret and in some ways over the objections of the Daugaard administration. The latest example of how the secrecy works was the LRC review process that spun to its conclusion Wednesday. There is a public report, but it wasn’t distributed to most Executive Board members until the morning of the meeting and wasn’t shared beforehand to the rank and file of representatives and senators. Less than half of the 105 legislators completed the survey tool used by the National Conference of State Legislatures reviewers. The majority of time spent by Executive Board members on the staffing matters happened in executive session. One of the recommendations from NCSL is to change state law to specifically say a two-thirds majority of the board or majorities in each of the House and Senate can vote to remove the LRC director. That clearly puts the director under the control of the Legislature’s majority party. There is more than one avenue to a more-partisan LRC staff.

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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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