- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Immediate concerns over attending interest group events during the upcoming legislative session are receding because of a judge’s decision last week to put on hold a new law that included gift limits for public officials, according to legislative leaders.

Circuit Judge Mark Barnett issued a preliminary injunction, delaying the government ethics overhaul’s implementation while a court challenge moves forward. That includes a provision limiting gifts from lobbyists to $100 annually for lawmakers, a regulation that had spurred hesitation over whether such events should be held and whether lawmakers should attend. There were previously no caps.

The injunction means that, for now, it’s as though the law hadn’t passed, South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry President David Owen said. The ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

“As far as I’m concerned, right now, my life is back to normal,” said Republican Sen. Brock Greenfield, who has been nominated to serve as Senate president pro tempore.

Greenfield said Senate Republican leadership would notify members that the law is on hold and that the situation has changed. The incoming Senate GOP leader, Blake Curd, had sent an email to caucus members last month saying top Republicans weren’t attending any events until they got more guidance.

Incoming House Majority Leader Lee Qualm said he thinks if lawmakers decide to attend events, there won’t be “dire consequences” because of the injunction. Still, Qualm said he feels cautious headed into session.

Curd, Qualm and Greenfield are among a group of two dozen GOP lawmakers and others who challenged the ethics overhaul in a lawsuit filed against the state. Barnett found that provisions of the law, including an ethics commission, public campaign funding and the gift limitations, may be unconstitutional.

Opponents argue that the gift provisions are poorly written to the point of confusion and attempt to fix a conjured-up crisis of corruption in Pierre.

Supporters billed it to voters as an anti-corruption package. They successfully pitched that it would help improve transparency and empower regular people.

Under the new law, a gift includes compensation, employment, beverages, food and things of value. Lobbyists and their employers are subject to the limitations when giving gifts to lawmakers, state officials and legislative and executive department staff.

Don Frankenfeld, a former GOP senator who helped pass the measure, acknowledged that perhaps $100 isn’t the right limit. But he said the goal is to hold lawmakers accountable.

“I think legislators are there to do serious work,” he said. “They’re not there to be indulged in by special interests.”

Last session alone, lawmakers were invited to dozens of breakfasts, dinners and gatherings held by groups ranging from trade associations to local chambers of commerce.

The state Chamber of Commerce, which compiles a legislative social calendar, sent out a letter Tuesday to groups who haven’t sent in information for 2017 noting that the judge put on hold the new rules. The letter advises that it will be easier to cancel an event than to try put one together at the last minute if something changes.

“I don’t think we see the massive wave of relief, yet, but I think the word’s getting out that this session will be not affected by” the law, Owen said.

The group’s Business Day at the Legislature will go on as usual, he said. South Dakota Retailers Association Executive Director Shawn Lyons said the judge’s move will allow the organization’s banquet the night before the legislative session to proceed as it has in the past.

The Pierre Area Chamber of Commerce had changed its upcoming legislative welcome gathering to require attending lawmakers to purchase their own tickets. CEO Laura Schoen Carbonneau said local businesses and organizations will again be allowed to sponsor lawmakers.

But Lyons said he knows other groups are still wary. “I think that’s unfortunate,” he said.

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