- Associated Press - Monday, February 11, 2019

Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Feb. 8

Easing state’s ‘English only’ restrictions makes sense

Our state legislature often seems determined to outdo itself each year in making laws that do little to improve the economic situation in South Dakota.

So we’ve got to hand it to the Senate Transportation Committee for advancing SB 117 to consideration by their full chamber. They haven’t allowed impractical nativist bluster to get in the way of moving forward with a tweak to existing law that promises a measure of relief for the woes of our workforce-strapped state.

The bill as currently written would allow the state to administer driver’s license written tests in Spanish. If passed, it would extend the exceptions to South Dakota’s English-only law regarding “any official public document or record of any official public meeting.”



One of that 1995 bill’s authors told the Argus Leader in 2017 that the law was never intended to prohibit administering written driving exams in other languages.

“My experience in the Legislature is that there’s a lot of legislative consequences that you hadn’t anticipated,” said retired state senator Mel Olson.

SB 117 would add driver’s license tests to the list of exceptions to South Dakota Codified Law 1-27-20, which identifies “the common language of the state” as English.

Existing exceptions include foreign language classes; instruction that helps students with limited English integrate into the education system; situations when criminal justice, public safety and health demand another language; and the conducting of international commerce, tourism and sporting events.

The bill’s proponents note that encouraging Spanish-speaking drivers to take the written exam in their first language will cut down on unlicensed drivers, improving road safety.

People who may have taken their exams in a different language in another state can already transfer their driver’s licenses to South Dakota. We do not stop foreign-language visitors who may not be able to read the text on some road signs at our state borders.

There’s a reason that road signs incorporate less text and more in the way of viscerally recognizable colors and shapes. The less cognitive stress on drivers, the less likely they’ll be involved in or cause an accident. The human brain processes graphical information more quickly and efficiently than written language.

So what do we stand to gain by not taking South Dakota off the lonely list of six remaining states which offer the written portion of their driver exams in English only?

The Sioux Falls and Rapid City Chambers of Commerce, along with representatives from the state’s construction and health industries, testified to the committee that the language restriction on driver’s license testing negatively impacts their ability to fill open job positions.

South Dakota’s unemployment rate was at 2.9 percent in December, according to the Federal Reserve. That tight labor market means the state needs to do what it can to assist businesses within our borders in their increasingly desperate quest for employees.

More people able to work means businesses can expand, which means even more people can work. Those people can then spend and be taxed on what they spend, contributing to state coffers to fund the programs South Dakota needs.

The state Department of Public Safety argues that the $66,000 it would cost to implement SB 117 is too high for their department, even though the bill would not go into effect until 2021 to allow budgeting for it in next year’s legislative session. They make this argument even though the state can’t see gains without making smart investments.

Limiting our money management to pinching every penny does nothing to increase state revenues.

The DPS also insists that “people have equal access” to the driver’s test and that they don’t “really see that there’s an issue.” That kind of willful denial of real-life concerns does nothing to improve South Dakota’s future.

Sioux Falls senator and bill sponsor Reynold Nesiba rightly chided the department’s representatives: “You just heard 14 proponents representing employers saying this is a problem.”

SB 117 isn’t the only possible answer to the problem it’s meant to fix. Another solution senators have discussed is to implement an interpreter system similar to the court’s program to accommodate even more languages, instead of only implementing a Spanish-language driver’s test.

There are 35,000 Spanish speakers in South Dakota, and that number keeps growing. But so do the numbers of immigrants in our communities whose first language is something other than English.

Whatever solution the legislature ultimately decides on concerning this matter, we’re encouraged by this tentative step toward crafting a pragmatic law that addresses a practical and pressing issue.

For this legislature, it’s a step in the right direction.

___

Rapid City Journal, Feb. 10

Leave absentee voting time alone

“The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.” - Ronald Reagan

Voting is a core element of a democratic society. Protecting American voters’ right to make their voices heard should be one of the pillars our elected officials seek most carefully to uphold.

Why, then, are South Dakota legislators trying to cut the allotted time for absentee voting down by more than half?

Currently, South Dakota allows 46 days for absentee voting. House Bill 1178, co-sponsored by Sen. Brock Greenfield and Rep. Karl Perry, if approved, would cut that down to 14 days.

HB 1178 was first read in the state House of Representatives on Jan. 29, and referred to the House State Affairs committee. As of Friday afternoon, its appearance before that committee hadn’t yet been scheduled.

First, let’s clarify our terms: In South Dakota, “absentee” voting means all votes cast before election day (sometimes colloquially referred to as early voting). So, when you go to your county auditor’s office three weeks before Election Day - for whatever reason - that’s absentee voting. Sending in a ballot while you’re deployed overseas? Absentee voting. Mailing in a ballot while you spend the winter in Arizona, or are away for college? Absentee.

Second, let’s look at a little history. Absentee voting in the United States started during the Civil War as a way for soldiers to vote while they were far afield. Known as “excuse-required” absentee voting, it required the voter to provide a valid reason - like military service - why they couldn’t make it to the ballot box on Election Day.

But the convenience led some people to start fudging excuses __so instead of states “cracking down,” they decided to make it more accessible. Enter “no-excuse” absentee voting in the 1970s. Early in-person voting followed soon after in the ‘80s.

To reiterate, earlier state legislators took a now-rare approach to legislating by actually listening to their constituents and working to make their lives easier. Now, 37 states offer some form of early or absentee voting.

Now let’s look at the reasoning behind this proposed reduction in vote time. Perry, a Republican from Aberdeen, said “Forty-six days for early voting, in my opinion, is too long.”

Why? It’s longer than the national average of 22 days, apparently.

Greenfield, a Republican from Clark, offered little more by explanation, other than a 46-day lead requires early ballot printing. Sometimes, he said, candidates want to change their mind about running, but they can’t because their name is already on the ballot.

Here’s our response: So?

Voting laws should be crafted to accommodate and protect voters, not politicians. And we certainly shouldn’t be worrying about politicians who may or may not know if they really want to run for office.

Pennington County Auditor-elect Cindy Mohler said county auditors across the state widely oppose this bill. Fourteen days is simply not enough time to mail out an absentee ballot, have the voter fill it out and return it, and be processed by the auditor’s office.

That’s a tight window to get a ballot to someone in Arizona, much less someone stationed in the Middle East.

And that’s the group of people we’re most worried about: our active-duty deployed military members. How does this bill factor in the federal Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act, which mandates 45 days for deployed military absentee voting? Are our legislators unaware of that, or do they simply expect our county auditors to abide by multiple deadlines?

Another group of people this will hit: farmers and ranchers. As one of our readers astutely pointed out, it can be difficult for farmers and ranchers to get away. Broken fences, sick livestock and malfunctioning equipment don’t care if it’s Election Day.

In Pennington County, thousands of people vote absentee every election. Prior to the November election, nearly 9,000 people had voted by Oct. 24. If this law had been in place, people wouldn’t have even been able to start casting absentee ballots until Oct. 24. Think of the added lines and increased time commitment - for voters and county officials. How many voters will this disenfranchise?

Is that what our legislators want?

To all legislators bent on making it hard to vote, we have to ask you to take a long, hard look at why. They say they’re willing to compromise and go longer than 14 days, but again, how is 22 days really much better? Voter turnout is already dreadfully low. Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to get more people to the polls than less? Isn’t this kind of ill-informed policy-making exactly what turns voters off from feeling like they have a voice?

HB 1178 is a bad bill. We hope the majority of our legislators see that and stop its progress.

___

Madison Daily Leader, Madison, Feb. 5

Making legislation a little cloudier?

Gov. Noem has emphasized her “four pillars of protection” during her campaign and the first weeks of her term in office. One of the four is “protection from government secrecy.”

She has emphasized transparency at all levels of state and local government. So it does seem ironic that state legislators appear to be heading in the other direction.

The rules of South Dakota’s legislative session are substantial, but here’s a quick summary: a bill is introduced and heard in a committee, allowing for public input, then passed or defeated. It then follows a path of going through both the House and Senate, all open to the public, then to the governor.

Because the session lasts only a couple of months, and there are roughly 500 bills to consider, there is naturally a deadline for introducing a bill. That deadline has passed this year, so everything should be on the table, right?

Not right. Legislators have on occasion introduced “placeholder” bills, in which a bill is introduced before the deadline with a vague title and very little text.

House Bill 1083 is an example. It is “An Act to revise certain programs to support education in South Dakota.” That’s it.

But remember, bills can be amended at various stages on its journey through the legislature. In some rare cases, a placeholder bill is even passed by both houses, and the actual language of the bill is added in conference committee, without public input.

We can understand a partially developed bill being introduced by the deadline, then modified and improved along the way. But hiding the intent of a bill to avoid public knowledge or scrutiny is wrong.

In the 2019, there appear to be 44 placeholder bills, more than observers ever remember. We don’t know if it’s an intentional act of rebellion, or if there are a whole bunch of secrets being held from the public.

Either way, the legislative process has become a bit cloudier this session, and it’s not the right way to enact legislation.

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