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90 seconds to 80 mph: How Gosch sped state to 80 mph limit
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90 seconds to 80 mph: How Gosch sped state to 80 mph limit

Last year, Wyoming spent six months publicly considering an 80 mph interstate speed limit.

This month, South Dakota spent only 90 seconds doing the same thing.

The difference is state Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, who pushed South Dakota's new maximum speed limit into law with no public testimony and no public analysis of the potential effect on traffic safety.

South Dakota’s new maximum interstate speed seemed to materialize out of thin air on the Monday of the legislative session's final week, and it will zoom into effect Wednesday, a span of just 23 days from public proposal to implementation. South Dakota will join Texas, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming as the only states in which speedometers can legally touch 80.

During a committee meeting Gosch chaired on March 9, he got the speed-limit provision inserted as a last-minute, surprise amendment on an $85 million highway-and-bridge funding bill. Because of an emergency clause included in the legislation, it will take effect Wednesday instead of the usual July 1 effective date.

As a result of the rushed process, a flurry of activity is underway. New 80 mph signs are flying out of a prison factory. State transportation workers are scrambling to replace all 250 existing 75 mph signs at an estimated cost of $25,000.

And already speculation is circulating that some signs could be changed back to 75 this summer, after the state Transportation Commission has its say.

There has been additional speculation that the higher speed limit was a sweetener to secure Gosch's support, or the support of other legislators, for the tax-and-fee increases in the road-and-bridge bill.

Gosch, in Journal interviews last week, claimed a simpler motivation. He had read or heard that other states adopted an 80 mph limit on interstates without any problems, he said, and he saw an opportunity to do the same thing in South Dakota.

Rep. Spencer Hawley, D-Brookings, voted against Gosch’s speed-limit amendment and later said it sailed through so quickly, “It only took about three minutes to put it in the bill.”

Actually, he’s wrong. An audio recording shows it only took 1½ minutes, and this is how Gosch made it happen.

Hitching a ride

Gosch, the House majority leader, piggybacked the 80 mph amendment onto the work of many lawmakers, mainly Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, who spent seven years pushing for a package of tax and fee increases to pay for road and bridge repairs. This year, the effort finally translated into successful legislation known as Senate Bill 1.

By March 9, the beginning of the legislative session’s last full week and the day the bill was on the agenda of the House State Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Gosch, the bill already had passed the Senate without the speed limit increase.

The legislation was a complex, numbers-laden giant consisting of 3,410 words spread across 12 pages, including increases in gas taxes, registration fees and other revenue sources. Besides having the bill and a number of amendments to wade through, committee members also had a deadline. They had to approve the bill that day, because the next day, a Tuesday, was the deadline to get the bill through the full House of Representatives.

Suddenly, the speed-limit amendment arose. During the eight preceding weeks of the legislative session, there had been no public indication that an interstate speed limit increase would be considered at all, let alone as part of the road-and-bridge funding bill. When the amendment popped up at the committee hearing, it was a surprise to the public and even some in the committee room, including state Rep. Mike Verchio, R-Hill City.

“I was quite surprised to see it in there,” Verchio said last week in an interview with the Journal.

In a later interview, after he had received a call from Gosch, Verchio changed his story and said he’d been told about the amendment several days before the hearing.

One person certainly was not surprised, and that was Gosch. Sometime on or before Friday, March 6, he had asked legislative staffers to draft the amendment.

When a legislator asks for an amendment draft, it is given directly to the legislator. He can distribute the amendment to whomever he chooses, but it doesn’t go public until it's formally proposed.

During a pair of interviews last week, Gosch told the Journal that on the Friday before the Monday morning committee hearing, he provided the amendment to “all the interested parties on the road-funding bill.”

But Verchio wasn’t the only legislator who initially said he was surprised by the amendment when it showed up at the Monday hearing. Rep. Spencer Hawley, D-Brookings, said the same thing when interviewed by the Journal. But like Verchio, Hawley later changed his story after receiving a call from Gosch and said he’d actually received the amendment days before the hearing.

A laughing matter

When the committee hearing on the road-and-bridge funding bill began, Gosch began calling for testimony on the stack of proposed amendments. Votes would come later.

The speed-limit increase, titled "Amendment 1om," eventually got its turn. That’s when the following was uttered, according to the archived audio recording:

Gosch: “We are going to move on, then, to 1om. This would increase the speed limit on interstate highways to 80 miles per hour. Are there any proponents on 1om?”

Nobody spoke up.

Gosch: “Any opponents on 1om?”

Again, nobody spoke up.

At that point, Gosch cracked a joke about the possibility that one of the government officials in the room might prefer a 90 mph speed limit. There was laughter, and Gosch moved on to the next amendment.

And that was it, at least for the time being. Thirty-two seconds of non-testimony.

There was no public input from the Department of Public Safety, Highway Patrol, Office of Highway Safety, Department of Transportation, Transportation Commission, South Dakota drivers and safety advocates, or anyone else.

Last year, when an 80 mph maximum speed limit was considered in Wyoming, some of the equivalent offices in that state gave public testimony. The item was considered as a standalone bill in the Wyoming Legislature, not as an amendment, giving it more chance for debate and discussion.

When the Wyoming bill was approved in March 2014, its implementation was delayed until July 2014 while the state’s Department of Transportation conducted a study to determine where 80 mph limits could be safely imposed. That resulted in only about half of Wyoming’s total interstate miles being converted to 80 mph zones.

The Journal asked Gosch last week why there was no testimony from state transportation or safety officials, who commonly testify on various items during legislative sessions.

“I don’t have the right to subpoena them,” Gosch said.

Verchio said that after the hearing, he spoke privately about the amendment to officials in the Department of Public Safety and didn’t hear anything negative. Other legislators made similar comments.

Incidentally, according to the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety's 2014 annual report, the five-year average of annual speed-related fatalities in the state is 36.4. The report also said, “Speed related fatalities remain a very real problem in South Dakota.”

A voice vote and a wisecrack

Later during the March 9 committee hearing, after all the testimony on all the proposed amendments to the road-and-bridge funding bill, Gosch called for motions.

Rep. Mark Mickelson moved for approval of the 80 mph amendment, and Rep. Steve Westra seconded the motion. Both are Republicans from Sioux Falls.

"I happened to be sitting there, and someone needed to move the motion, and I did," Mickelson said last week in an interview. "I don't have strong feelings on it, but I'm fine having it be part of the package."

After the motion and second, Gosch asked for comments. Somebody who is not identified on the hearing's audio recording said, “I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, and I support the amendment.”

Gosch then called for a vote, but he was interrupted by Hawley, the Brookings Democrat, who asked if increasing the speed limit on a federal interstate highway would affect the state’s federal funding. In the past, for example, the feds put restrictions on highway funding for states that lacked seat-belt laws.

“We’re beyond the question at this point,” Gosch replied, “but we asked that question in Wyoming, and they said there was not, in Utah and Wyoming, there was not a bearing on federal funds.”

Only a voice vote was taken, so there’s no official record of who voted for or against the amendment. Democrats Hawley and Rep. Julie Bartling, D-Gregory, have since told the Journal they voted “no,” and they don’t know of anybody else who joined them.

With the amendment approved, Gosch deployed more wry humor.

“You don’t have to drive 80,” he said. “You can drive at least, I think, the minimum is 45.”

Actually, the minimum is 40 mph. That’s a separate state law that wasn't touched by legislators this year and hasn't been updated since 1989, even while the maximum has been raised twice. Nevertheless, Gosch’s comment sparked more laughter, and the committee moved on to other motions.

It took 58 seconds from Gosch’s call for the motion until its approval.

So, combining the non-testimony, the brief commentary after the motion, and the vote, the total time spent amending an 80 mph maximum speed limit into the road-and-bridge funding bill was 1½ minutes.

Critics stayed quiet

Hawley said later that as he watched the amendment get approved, he didn’t like it. He thought the matter belonged in a standalone bill, so it could receive adequate testimony about the potential impact on traffic safety instead of being rushed through as an amendment.

But he assumed, wrongly, that the amendment would be removed later by the conference committee that would be appointed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the road-and-bridge funding bill.

“It’s probably my fault,” Hawley said later. “I should’ve jumped up and down harder.”

There were others who weren’t thrilled about the amendment but also stayed quiet.

Hawley’s fellow Democrat, Bartling, was not originally interviewed by the Journal last week but got a call from Gosch, who she said urged her to call and tell the Journal she received the amendment on the Friday before the Monday hearing.

She called the Journal and confirmed her prior knowledge of the amendment, but she also explained why she voted against it. She didn’t think the speed-limit amendment belonged in the funding bill, and she thinks 80 mph is too fast.

“I guess I’m just not hip on that type of speed,” Bartling said.

Sen. Vehle, the Mitchell Republican whose seven-year crusade to raise funding for roads and bridges included an in-depth study and statewide tour  that he led last summer, also received the 80 mph amendment days before the House State Affairs hearing.

“My first reaction when I heard this would be one of the amendments was, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Vehle said. "I wasn’t excited about it."

But he was stuck. His road-and-bridge bill had finally gained support after a long struggle, and it was his top priority. He didn’t want the amendment to become a distraction and derail the broader bill. In addition, he didn’t have strong feelings on the speed-limit increase.

“I thought, ‘I’m not going to get in front of this freight train,'” Vehle said.

The freight train rolled on through the rest of the legislative process and reached Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s desk. He signed the bill, including the 80 mph amendment, on March 17. 

More debate ahead?

Gosch's job is done, but controversy might be just beginning.

Another state law, separate but related to the maximum speed law, gives the Transportation Commission power to set limits lower than the maximum. A member of the commission, which is an appointed citizen panel, and an employee in the Department of Transportation gave different opinions to the Journal on whether the commission can lower all the 80 mph zones back to 75, or just certain sections. Interstate stretches that were already lower than 75 will stay that way and won't be affected by the new legislation.

The commission apparently cannot act to reduce a speed limit until after the limit has taken effect. That's why all the 75 mph interstate speed-limit signs will be changed Wednesday in accordance with the new law, and some signs could eventually be changed back in accordance with potential commission action.

It’s unknown what the commission will do, but at a Thursday meeting four of the nine members expressed displeasure about the increased speed limit.

The Journal told Commissioner Donald Roby, of Watertown, about the methodical way the limit was increased by the Wyoming Legislature and asked him if that would have been a better way to do it.

“I’ll say this,” Roby said. “That certainly seems like a reasonable approach.”

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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