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Critics concerned about power of initiative’s ethics panel

July 3, 2018 GMT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Opponents of a South Dakota ballot question that would create a new government ethics commission are raising concerns about the amount of power that would be given to an unelected panel if voters approve it in November.

South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry President David Owen said Tuesday that the group would help lead opposition to what’s billed as an anti-corruption initiative, which voters will decide in the general election. Constitutional Amendment W would tighten campaign finance and lobbying restrictions, establish the independent ethics board and prevent the Legislature from changing laws approved by voters without returning to the ballot.

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Owen said the ethics commission would have a “scope of power that’s kind of unbelievable.”

“We’re wandering into territory that’s completely unheard of,” he said.

Mitch Richter, a co-sponsor of the amendment, said it’s meant to put power back in the hands of the people. The new seven-member state government accountability board with broad powers would serve as a citizen ethics commission.

The members would be appointed by the state Supreme Court, the governor and by the board itself. It would require lawmakers to put $389,000 annually indexed to inflation into a fund administered by the board.

The panel would investigate allegations of corruption and violations of lobbying, campaign finance and government ethics regulations. It would also have the authority to conduct audits of disclosures including for lobbying and campaign finance and impose sanctions such as fines on public officials.

The amendment would replace a voter-imposed ethics overhaul that state lawmakers repealed just months after it passed in 2016. Richter said supporters came back with a “stronger piece of legislation.”

But critics have labeled the measure an out-of-state proposal because it has been funded by Represent.Us, a Massachusetts-based organization working to reduce the influence of money in politics that also supported the 2016 South Dakota ballot measure campaign.

“I think we’re going to get outspent,” Owen said. “I think they’re going to whoop up a false impression that South Dakota is massively corrupt.”

Other groups opposing the amendment include the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, South Dakota Bankers Association, South Dakota Farm Bureau, South Dakota Municipal League, South Dakota Retailers Association and AGC of South Dakota Highway Heavy Utility Chapter.

Richter said the amendments opponents are “insiders” who are concerned about power going back to the people.

“They like the game that they’re playing now, and they don’t want the rules changed,” he said.