Mortenson walks back plan for remote testimony

Rep. Will Mortenson (R-Pierre), the Majority Leader of the South Dakota State House, addresses...
Rep. Will Mortenson (R-Pierre), the Majority Leader of the South Dakota State House, addresses Rep. Carl Perry (R-Aberdeen) on the floor of the State House.(Jason Harward)
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 5:25 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. - The Majority Leader of the South Dakota State House says he wants to return the body to the “normal” they knew before COVID.

But lawmakers from both parties are reluctant to let go of the ability of people to remotely testify.

Last week, Rep. Will Mortenson (R-Pierre) announced that the House State Affairs committee would no longer be accepting remote testimony, and urged other House committee chairs to follow suit. But after disagreement from House lawmakers, Mortenson told reporters during a weekly leadership press conference that the House State Affairs committee, which he chairs, would be accepting remote testimony on a “case by case” basis, and he would be leaving it up to other committee chairs to decide how they wanted to operate.

“We took out all the rules in the rulebook about voting remotely, and tried to get the rules back to where they were pre-COVID,” Mortenson said Thursday morning. “On remote testimony, I left that up to the chairs. I want to empower the chairs, and make the House an organization.”

Remote testimony was far more restricted in the South Dakota state legislature prior to COVID, but that changed in response to the pandemic. Since then, it has become a mainstay for many who can’t make the trip to Pierre.

“I think it is really important that we keep testimony accessible for all South Dakotans, this is the people’s house,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Erin Healy (D-Sioux Falls). “If they can’t afford to get here, if they don’t have the ability to take time off, or have children or elderly loved ones to take care of, they deserve the ability to testify remotely.”

In addition to Mortenson’s House State Affairs committee, a number of committee chairs indicated to Dakota News Now/KOTA Territory that they would also be accepting remote testimony on a “case by case” or “emergency” basis.

Other committees, like the Health and Human Services and the Judiciary committees, said that they would continue to accept remote testimony with effectively no restrictions.

“The essential function of democracy is to allow the governed to have a voice in government. Reverting back to in-person hearings only is a step backward, not forward,” said Samantha Chapman, Advocacy Director for the ACLU of South Dakota. “Pandemic or not, failure to extend a virtual option only excludes the voices that legislators need to hear the most.”

Another major concern raised by many lawmakers was the presence of an excessive amount of out-of-state testifiers, which drew out committee hearings. Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree (R-Madison) said that the Senate will prioritize those in the room, than those testifying remotely from within South Dakota, than everyone else testifying remotely after that.

“It is the digital age, and I like that we have done it like this,” said Rep. Trish Ladner (R-Hot Springs). Ladner pointed to the fact that her district is three-and-a-half hours away, plus an hour time change. “It is disappointing to my constituents, they want to participate in government, and I think people like the luxury of remote testimony.”

Mortenson, citing the legislature’s accessibility, stressed the ability of constituents to send written and video testimony before committees meet.

“If you are in a situation where you can’t make it, and you let us know that and give us an advance, we will accommodate some people,” Mortenson said. “We just want to make sure we give plenty of time to those citizens who show up in person to testify.”