Senate wants 60% voter threshold for some ballot initiatives

March 3, 2021 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Tuesday paved the way for primary election voters to speed into law before the next general election a constitutional amendment requiring a higher voter threshold for future ballot initiatives that pass taxes or spending programs.

Democrats, and some Republicans, opposed the Senate resolution as an “unfair” move to circumvent ballot initiative campaigns that are already in process. But the Senate passed it by the thinnest of margins — a single vote — to put it to voters in the next primary election whether ballot initiatives should have a 60% vote requirement if they pass taxes or spend more than $10 million in any of the five years after enactment.

The Senate’s move to put the issue on the primary election ballot — where fewer voters will decide on it — was an effort to head off a looming Medicaid expansion ballot initiative before the November election.

Lawmakers have found themselves at odds with voters who have found an end-run around the Legislature in recent years by passing laws through ballot initiatives. South Dakota voters passed both recreational and medical marijuana in November, but have seen the constitutional amendment allowing recreational pot overturned by a judge and Gov. Kristi Noem push a delay to legalizing medical marijuana.

Sen. Mike Diedrich, the assistant Republican leader, said he would have supported the constitutional amendment proposal if it had appeared in the general election, but voted against the proposal when the timeline was expedited because it would apply to ballot initiative campaigns already in process.

“It’s unfair to those people who are following the laws,” he said.

But Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the Senate pro tem who initiated the move to expedite the constitutional amendment vote, said it was important to get “safeguards in place for the taxpayers.”

He acknowledged that his expedited push was motivated by the Medicaid expansion campaign, but argued the vote threshold should apply to all ballot initiatives that levy taxes or spend significant state funds. The Legislature must gain a two-thirds majority for taxes and budget appropriations.

Democrats like Sen. Reynold Nesiba decried the effort as “undermining the will of the people,” pointing out that ballot initiative campaigns already face requirements to gather thousands of petitions, as well as months of public scrutiny. He said the constitutional amendment for the higher vote threshold would be easier to pass in a primary election that draws fewer voters.

“We are cutting our people off at the knees,” said Sen. Troy Heinert, the Democratic leader.

The constitutional amendment resolution passed in the House under the stipulation it would appear on the general election ballot. The House would have to agree to the Senate’s proposal to put it on the primary ballot if it is to appear in the primary election.