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New political order in South Dakota.

Their gains in the 1992 elections gave democrats partial control of the South Dakota Legislature for the first time in 17 years.

Not only did the balance of power shift between the state's two major political parties, there also occurred a more fundamental change: a weakening of South Dakota's traditional system of a strong governor using the inherent clout of his office to dominate the part-time Legislature. This change was brought on by Republican and Democratic lawmakers together.

Add to the mix an unusually high turnover from the 1992 elections--of 40 the 105 members didn't return because they retired or were defeated at the ballot box. Combine it with the tightest state government revenues since the mid-1980 farm crisis and the pledges taken by many candidates not to raise taxes if elected.

The result was a new political order in the 1993 session of the South Dakota Legislature. Not one of the three centers of power--the House Republican and Senate Democratic majorities, or seventh-year Republican Governor George S. Mickelson (who was killed in a plane crash April 9)--was able to advance an agenda without concurrence from the others.

For 15 years, Republican governors have sent their orders upstairs one flight to the Capitol's third floor, where most of the time Republican majorities carried them out. Democratic proposals seldom made it out of their first committee hearing during those years. At one point in Mickelson's first term, Democratic senators staged a walk-out from the afternoon floor session to protest their treatment.

That history made all sides somewhat hesitant about approaching the 1993 session with split control of the two chambers. Lobbyists, for example, delayed having their bills filed until things settled into place a few weeks into the 40-day session. Mickelson submitted a recommended FY 1994 budget that he described as "bare bones," and that lawmakers from both parties criticized as inadequate.

The two Republican caucuses elected new leaders. Steve Cutler took over in the House because former Speaker Jim Hood retired. Roger McKellips heads the Senate because of the election-day defeat of former Majority Leader George Shanard of Mitchell the second Senate Republican leader to be defeated by Democrats in four years.

Like many political revolts, the upheaval in South Dakota had been building for some time. After eight years of dominance, in the late 1980s the state's Republican Party became complacent. The Democratic Party, with U.S. Senator Tom Daschle bringing in new energy and money, renewed its efforts at the Capitol, assigning a full-time staffer to the Legislature and matching Republicans in numbers of candidates recruited.

At the same time, the Republican governor kept seeking tax increases to fuel his activist agenda.

Democrats slowly made gains as they concentrated on the Senate, increasing to 15 of the 35 members in 1988, then 17 in 1990 and finally taking a 20-15 majority in 1992.

Two strategies played significant roles in the Democrats' successes in 1988 and 1990. They used the tax increases sought by the Republicans to reverse the traditional images and portray Democrats as the fiscally conservative party in South Dakota. They also targeted weak Republican incumbents and open seats in larger communities created by people moving from rural areas in search of better jobs.

To further drive home the message of change to these urban voters, many of the Democratic Senate candidates were women. In the 1991-92 sessions, nine of the 17 Democratic senators and only two of the 18 Republicans were women.

Republicans made two significant mistakes in preparing for the 1992 elections. They proclaimed a goal of raising $250,000 for a joint legislative fund with the money to go toward a TV campaign. And, in redrawing boundaries during reapportionment, the Legislature's Republican majorities approved a plan that gave thin margins of Republican voter registration in many districts while ignoring "friends' and neighbors"' voting preferences that reached beyond party affiliations.

Democrats mounted a massive legislative campaign, using more than $100,000 channeled into a coordinated campaign fund from Daschle's U.S. Senate re-election treasury. His Republican counterpart, U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, provided no substantial financial help and made only a few token campaign visits late in the legislative races for some candidates who looked like sure winners.

The Republicans never came close to reaching their quarter-million-dollar goal and aired only a few ads for a few candidates that were lost in the clutter of the final days.

Meanwhile, Democrats aired a sarcastic, Monty Python-esque TV ad lampooning Mickelson's fiscal policies, and mailed 600,000 oversized postcards that used Far Side-like humor to criticize Republican legislative incumbents.

The new balance of power had some unforeseen results. Abortion opponents, already holding a majority in the House, gained a slim majority in the Senate and allowed three anti-abortion bills to pass that might not have passed the previous year. Democratic senators turned to Mickelson to mediate differences with House Republicans on the budget and video lottery taxes.

The final result of the 1993 session, after a slow start, was a joint agreement on the state's first long-term fund for water projects and funding for other special projects that Mickelson had left out of the original budget. The agreement came out of seven weeks of continual negotiations among all four caucuses and the governor's office.

The various factions managed to avoid the showdowns that caused gridlock in the previous four years. Republican leaders no longer felt pushed into a corner by their own governor's proposals, and Democratic legislators felt they had a voice for the first time in a generation. And Mickelson got the waterfunding program that for 40 years the state's governors had sought.

That victory proved to be Mickelson's last. On April 19, he and seven others were killed in a plane crash near Dubuque, Iowa. Succeeding Mickelson is Lieutenant Governor Walter Dale Miller, his running mate and fellow Republican. This tragedy raises a whole new set of circumstances and questions for the Legislature's 1994 session next January.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Mercer, Bob
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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