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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