Let’s talk a little about ethics.
The South Dakota House of representatives, Tuesday, passed a bill that will repeal, in its entirety, a measure passed by more than 51 percent of South Dakota voters. The law commonly known as Initiated Measure 22, among other things, created an ethics commission.
There was, in fact, a lot of reform in IM 22 but the highlights include creating a public financing system for state elections, restricting and requiring the disclosure of gifts legislators are given by lobbyists and placing strict controls on what state contracts a legislator’s or their spouse’s full-time employer can have.
On the very same day the House was debating the repeal of IM 22, a joint committee on discipline and expulsion met to discuss the conduct of Rep. Mathew Wollman, R, Madison. Wollman admitted last week to having consensual sexual relationships with legislative interns.
This hearing took place less than two weeks after a legislative rules committee declined to change the legislature’s rules to specifically say that legislators are prohibited from having sex with interns.
What do these two events have in common, you may ask? Well, they both revolve around the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior, more simply known as ethics.
On the one hand we have our elected leaders taking a firm stand against being transparent with their constituents.
Our readers may remember the EB-5 and GEAR-UP scandals in which a total of seven people lost their lives and millions of taxpayer dollars were misappropriated. Inaction on government ethics reform and transparency on the part of the legislature, more than anything else, led the people of South Dakota to approve IM 22.
We were fed up. Something had to be done. Faced with the choice between nothing happening for yet another year and voting for an admittedly flawed initiated measure, most South Dakota voters chose the initiated measure.
On the other hand we have the legislature acting swiftly to investigate and punish a 26-year-old former Marine who had consensual relationships with interns who were over the age of 21. A legislator having sexual relationships with interns is unethical, regardless of age. It was the wrong thing to do. Wollmann resigned from the house on Monday.
The legislature moved to investigate Wollman’s actions within a day of the news breaking. A disciplinary committee was set up and a hearing was held less than a week later. House leaders have gone on the record saying such things as, “Every legislator has an obligation to refrain from behavior unbecoming to the Legislature and inconsistent with maintaining the public’s trust.”
And yet, it has taken three years, two scandals, seven deaths, millions of lost tax payer dollars and a popular vote to force some substantive movement on government ethics reform. And now the state House of Representatives has voted to repeal the very law aimed at restoring South Dakotans’ shaken faith in their government.
Are legislators really more concerned with one of their own getting caught sleeping with consenting adults than corruption, real or perceived, in state government? Because that’s the message they’re sending this week.
Certainly IM 22 is not perfect. Yes, it came from an out of state group. And the campaign to get it passed was funded by out of state money. But had the legislature stepped up and passed some substantive reforms on their own, they could have avoided this whole mess.
There are many areas that IM 22 could be improved upon. Because it was an initiated measure and not a constitutional amendment, legislators are well within their rights to make the needed changes. Repealing the law outright looks arrogant and more than a little self serving. It will do nothing, not one darn thing, to maintain the public’s trust in its elected officials.
We say South Dakotans voted for more transparency and better accountability from their elected officials when they passed IM 22 last year. The legislature owes it to their constituents to give them what they asked for.