By most measures, South Dakota ranks near the bottom of the nation in open government.
And despite the fact the governor’s office appointed an Open Government Task Force to draft bills to address the issue, the 2013 Legislature did little to make government more transparent.
By Friday, as the main run of this year’s legislative session ended, lawmakers had killed five of eight bills that came from the task force. One bill that was killed would have let the media publish pictures of criminal suspects; another would have repealed the five-year period at which pardons are sealed.
A small handful of other bills intended to improve transparency but not directly recommended by the task force were also discussed by the legislature. But those that passed the House and Senate were minor in nature.
The introduction of those bills coincided with a growing debate among South Dakota officials, journalists, and watchdog groups about the state’s disclosure and accountability laws.
The Center for Public Integrity ranked the state the 49th least transparent in the nation last year. Around the same time, Gov. Dennis Daugaard established the Open Government Task Force that consisted of journalists, state government officials and representatives for local governments.
David Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association and a member of that task force, said he was glad at least a few of the task force’s bills passed.
“I guess I always take the glass half-full view,” he said. “Any time we can get some open government bills signed into law, it’s a good thing.”
Bordewyk though would like to have had more to celebrate for Sunshine Week, a national initiative that started Sunday and seeks to shine the spotlight on open-government and freedom of information issues.
He acknowledged that of those that passed, most made only modest changes to existing laws. SB145, for instance, makes property tax bills easier to read. Another bill, HB1158, clarifies that when a public body advertises an upcoming meeting, it must include the date and time of the meeting in its notice.
Legislators had a variety of concerns with the bigger reforms proposed. A bill that would apply open-meeting requirements to more public bodies and committees was criticized for going too far, capturing small bodies like rural electric co-operatives.
Another bill, which would apply open-meeting and open-record requirements to meetings held by e-mail, chat rooms or text messaging, was criticized because it wasn’t clear how long an official would have to hold onto an email, chat conversation or text message.
But Bordewyk said he’s confident those bills can be redrafted to address those issues.
“I think we will use that education, that failure, to come back next year with better, stronger bills,” he said.
Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s communications director, and another member of the task force, also sees lessons learned.
“There’s not a lot of appetite in the Legislature for big changes at this point,” he said.
While Venhuizen would have liked all of the bills proposed by the task force to pass, he disputes the state’s reputation for poor transparency.
He said the state is far more open than it was 20 years ago. He pointed to a 2008 law change that increased public access to records. He also said the governor was fostering a spirit of openness within state agencies.
Venhuizen attributes the state’s low ranking by the Center for Public Integrity and other watchdog groups to the low population density of the state.
“A lot of these local governments don’t have a lot of staff and operate in pretty small communities and probably have not built the capacity to take the kind of measures that would seem appropriate,” he said.
But Gordon Witkin, managing editor for the Center for Public Integrity, said just because a state is small doesn’t mean it can’t have good transparency and accountability laws.
“The fact of the matter is South Dakota scored badly on a lot of our categories,” he said.
Among the organization’s biggest concerns in its 2012 report:
• South Dakota has few ethics laws and is one of nine states with no ethics commission to oversee state officials and bureaucrats.
• There are few requirements for officials to declare their income and assets.
• A loophole that allows political donors to make unlimited donations by filling out a little paperwork. Contributions can also be converted for personal use after an election.
• The definition of “lobbyist” is poor and those registered are required to disclose little and infrequent information about their spending.
Witkin said those failings, among others, meant South Dakota was one of the states most at risk for corruption in the nation — outranked only by Georgia.
He said that South Dakotans may have a false sense of security that there isn’t corruption because they don’t hear about it. But without good disclosure laws, that’s difficult to verify.
“How would you root out corruption if it was there?” he said.
Sunshine Review, a nonprofit watchdog that ranks public bodies for the amount of information they place online, is also critical of South Dakota.
The nonprofit grades states based on the accessibility of information on the websites of counties, cities, school districts, and state departments. It gave South Dakota a “C” and noted its counties were particularly poor at uploading information, from audits to contracts, from public records to tax information.
Kristin McMurray, managing editor of the Sunshine Review, says for the organization’s next report, the standards will be raised. Without improvement, that could lower South Dakota’s grade to a “D” or even an “F”.
McMurray said, ultimately, good transparency laws and compliance were important because, without access to information, citizens simply had to trust their leaders were doing the right thing.
“I wish blind faith was enough,” she said. “But history has shown otherwise.”