PIERRE — State lawmakers decided Friday the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee could subpoena witnesses but would need ratification beforehand by its Executive Board.
The change clarified that the committee, through a majority vote, could subpoena and set a specific threshold for exercising that power.
The legislation reflects a difference between summoning witnesses, which the committee has done, and the higher legal authority involved in issuing subpoenas.
A summoned witness doesn’t have to testify. A subpoenaed witness must ask a state judge to avoid appearing at the committee.
The issue arose from the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative scandal.
Legislative auditors said last year they couldn’t account for nearly $1.4 million of federal grant funding that passed through the state Department of Education to the Platte cooperative.
Several nonprofits had access to the Mid-Central bank account.
Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, is one of the co-chairwomen who lead the audit committee’s five senators and five representatives.
“We are not a grand jury,” she told other senators Friday afternoon.
The House of Representatives voted 50-15 for the changes. The Senate followed 19-16. SB 125 goes to Gov. Dennis Daugaard for review.
The Senate nearly killed the legislation on the previous roll call. Senate Republican leader Blake Curd, of Sioux Falls, broke that 17-17 tie.
The legislation also clarifies the committee can subpoena documents.
The committee would need to fulfill three steps:
• Determine a legislative purpose existed for the person or documents to be subpoenaed.
• Determine the subpoenaed person or documents would be relevant and material to accomplish the legislative purpose.
• Determine the information is not otherwise practicably available.
After that the committee would make a request to the Executive Board.
Eight House members and seven senators comprise the Executive Board. The House speaker and the Senate president pro tem take turns each year as the board’s leader.
The legislation also contains this sentence: “It is not a legislative purpose to subpoena a person or documents to collect information that may be used for a criminal proceeding or to legislatively determine guilt or inflict punishment upon an identifiable person.”
The House-Senate conference committee voted 5-1 on Friday morning to recommend the final version.
“We are not the judge, we are not the investigatory criminal jury. We find it, we report it,” Peters testified.
She cited a requirement in the Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure that says the possible criminal act, upon discovery, must be turned over to law enforcement.
“We do not subpoena for criminal behavior. That is not our role,” Peters said.
Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, argued the Executive Board requirement was “clearly unneeded.”