- Associated Press - Friday, November 18, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota interest groups are hesitant to hold events for state lawmakers because of new limits on lobbyist gifts included in an anti-corruption initiative that took effect this week.

The incoming Senate Republican leader sent an email to caucus members Tuesday saying top Republicans aren’t attending any events until they get more guidance.

The ballot measure approved by voters on Election Day limits gifts from lobbyists to $100 annually for lawmakers - a major change given there were previously no caps.

The new law has spurred uncertainty among lobbyists and lawmakers. Secretary of State Shantel Krebs said her office has received hundreds of calls about the wide-ranging initiative, while groups such as the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce have canceled upcoming events - or are weighing whether they’ll still be held.

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. It’s likely the number of shelved events will grow because organizations are reacting to the law change with caution, South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry President David Owen said.

The Pierre Area Chamber of Commerce decided to cancel its gathering to welcome legislators, though it could come back in a different form.

“We would like to be able to have the event, but we don’t want to put anyone in jeopardy of breaking campaign finance or election laws,” CEO Laura Schoen Carbonneau said.

Some of the concerns were first reported in the conservative blog South Dakota War College.

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.

Foes 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.

“I’ve never seen a legislator driving a vehicle they can’t explain,” Owen said with a laugh. “They all don’t come back tanned at ‘Veto Day’ because they’ve been on vacation someplace.”

The $100 limit is too low when coupled with the fact that gifts given to an official’s immediate family members count toward the cap, he said.

Supporters say the goal is to restrict the financial relationship between lobbyists or interest groups and lawmakers. The law makes people show “modest restraint,” said Don Frankenfeld, a former GOP senator who helped pass the measure.

“I hope it doesn’t discourage people from meeting,” he said. “It just will hopefully discourage people from spending a lot of money to influence legislators.”

Many states have placed restrictions on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. In Kansas, the limit is $40 a year, but that doesn’t include hospitality such as food, drinks and recreation. Minnesota law bans lobbyists from giving public officials gifts, with exceptions for some small-value gifts and food and beverages at certain events.

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will attempt to revise or repeal the South Dakota initiative during the 2017 session.

An aide to Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the governor is reviewing the measure and getting legal advice on its potential effects. Chief of Staff Tony Venhuizen said it’s a “very poorly-drafted statute” that could have many unintended consequences.

The initiative also creates an ethics commission, tightens campaign finance laws and set up a system to publicly fund campaigns.

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