Outside review faults Legislature’s operations most for drafting errors and being nonpartisan

By Bob Mercer

State Capitol Bureau

The South Dakota Legislature has the smallest central, nonpartisan legislative staff agency in the nation, according to a management and performance audit that was officially delivered today to the Legislature’s Executive Board.

The report said most legislators agree the Legislative Research Council staff members are good at what they do but “something has changed in recent years” and the LRC and its work product are “under scrutiny by an increasingly active, demanding, attentive and often dissatisfied contingent of legislators.”

The report further states: “It also is clear that while some legislators remain satisfied with LRC performance, there is room at the LRC for improvement.”

Many legislators didn’t complete the survey for the review. Of 35 senators, 15 Republicans and three Democrats participated. Of 70 House members, 19 Republicans and 13 Democrats did. The Senate has 27 Republicans and seven Democrats (with one vacancy effective Sept. 30 upon the resignation of past Senate Republican leader Russ Olson of Wentworth), while the House has 53 Republicans and 17 Democrats.

The operations subcommittee of the Executive Board, accompanied by budget subcommittee members, went into closed session at 8 a.m. today to discuss the report with the National Conference of State Legislature staff members who had been contracted to perform the review starting in May.

The full Executive Board will discuss the report in open session starting at 10 a.m. CDT and has scheduled a closed-door executive session this afternoon.

The review says the preponderance of legislator complaints focuses on quality and responsiveness. The quality concerns are primarily about bill and amendment drafting errors and “a commonly held opinion” that drafting quality declined in recent years.

The responsiveness concerns varied, according to the report. “Many legislators want and need a broad range of advice about process, policy and sometimes politics. However, there is a sense among many members that the LRC sometimes restricts its contribution to legislative deliberation under the banner of nonpartisanship,” the report said.

The report recommends the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem – the top two legislators in each chamber – act as rotating chairs of the Executive Board rather than have the chairman elected by the board members.

The report further recommends that the LRC director can be removed by a two-thirds vote of the board or by a majority vote in each of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Among other recommendations are a training and orientation program for each board member and new strategies for informing all legislators about LRC operations.

The report calls for LRC staff meetings, procedures for setting performance goals and annual performance appraisals for all LRC employees including the director, establishment of modern personnel policy and procedures, creation of an LRC management team and an examination of the nonpartisan practices by LRC staff.

The report further recommends hiring a bill-drafting attorney, a legal editor-proofreader and a computer help-desk person for LRC.

Jim Fry, 65, has been director of LRC since 2000. He had considered retiring this summer but decided to stay at least through completion of the review.

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