The grade changed little from the project’s first go-round in 2012, when South Dakota’s overall score of 50 was second worst among the states. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Across the board, the state lacks robust laws to prevent corruption, apparently the result of a sense, at least among South Dakota’s ruling class, that burdensome controls are not needed in a rural state with a supposedly high degree of familiarity, trust and cordiality.
Tony Venhuizen, chief of staff to Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, referred to that oft-repeated defense when told of the state’s poor showing in the investigation.
“According to Gallup, South Dakotans' trust in their state government is among the highest in the nation, and the state has very little history of corruption,” Venhuizen said in an emailed statement. “That's why our state hasn't enacted some of these measures.”
Some support for that sentiment comes from the investigation’s finding of a wide but unusual enforcement gap, a measure of the difference between the laws and how they're actually implemented, which suggests South Dakota government actually goes beyond what the law calls for when it comes to ethics and disclosure.
That’s of little solace, however, to Democratic state Rep. Peggy Gibson.
“I’m embarrassed that we have such a low standing,” she said after learning of South Dakota’s overall score.
Lobbyists scrawl ‘none’ on reports
South Dakota suffered its lowest score in the lobbying disclosure section, for which its numerical score of 40 was second worst in the nation. Jody Severson, who operates the political consulting firm Severson & Associates, offered a three-word summary of South Dakota’s lobbying disclosure in an email interview: “It’s a joke.”
The state requires lobbyists and their employers to file just one annual expense report, due three months after each legislative session. The loopholes are so broad and the scrutiny so lax that some lobbyists disclose nothing more than their identity and their employer.
State law requires the disclosure of “all costs incurred for the purpose of influencing legislation,” but the law exempts “personal expenses of the lobbyist spent upon the lobbyist's own meals, travel, lodging, phone calls or other necessary personal needs while in attendance at the legislative session.”
Many lobbyists interpret the exemption broadly. In the space for “expense information” on the one-page form provided by the secretary of state, some filers simply scrawl the word “none.” They can do so with impunity because the reports are not audited.
What’s more, the state makes it difficult for the public to review even these minimal disclosures. The expense report documents are not viewable online and are available only by special request.
When lobbyists do list expenses on their disclosures, they provide only the expense dates, amounts and a general descriptive term such as “meals” or “entertainment.” A separate annual registration form requires little more than contact information and the lobbyist’s “subject of interest.” Neither lobbyists nor their employers are required to disclose lobbied bill numbers, nor are they required to list salaries.
Lest any filers try to voluntarily disclose their compensation, the expense form includes a bolded warning: “DO NOT include a lobbyist salary or fee.”