Proposed constitutional amendment would limit state power on ballot measures

Published: Jul. 5, 2023 at 6:09 PM CDT
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ABERDEEN, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Brian Bengs wants to add one sentence to the state’s constitution, but that one sentence could cement the will of voters for 7 years.

Bengs is an Aberdeen native and former educator at Northern State University. He ran against Sen. John Thune for a seat in Congress in 2022.

Bengs’s proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit the state legislature from repealing or amending measure that has been passed by voters for at least 7 years from the enacted date.

”It will make the process more secure in the sense that when people vote on something, you have a direct voice of the people saying, ‘This is what we want.’ When the legislature is free to go, ‘You didn’t really understand what you were doing and we don’t want that,’ that is wrong. It counters the direct will of the people,” said Bengs.

In 2017, the state legislature repealed Initiated Measure 22 after voters passed it. IM 22 would have revised state campaign finance and lobbying laws and created an ethics commission. Bengs said this is just one example of lawmakers abusing the will of the people.

”Any party that has a supermajority is more empowered and emboldened to go, ‘Well, we know better and we don’t really have to worry about any competition that might be unhappy with our decision.’ So, this fundamentally puts all the power back into the hands of the people where it is safest,” said Bengs.

With the change Bengs proposes, the state legislature would instead have to refer a measure to the ballot to amend or repeal a passed measure. The amendment or repeal would have to, again, be approved by voters. Bengs said the constitutional amendment essentially gives citizens veto power.

“This would protect it if the legislature doesn’t like it. If every single member of the legislature says, ‘I don’t like that,’ they can refer a measure to the people and have the people vote on it. They just have to explain, ‘People, you were wrong when you voted this, and here’s why you need to vote now to overturn what you just voted for last time,’” said Bengs.

South Dakota was the first state in the country to give its citizens the right to pass or nullify laws when a constitutional amendment that passed in 1898 provided for popular initiative for enacting and rejecting legislation. Bengs hopes his proposed constitutional amendment to protect that right is from lawmakers in opposition is passed just as swiftly.

”We are the first state in the country to adopt direct democracy with a ballot-initiative process where the voters get the opportunity to submit things that they want to happen and have it voted on by everybody. You either believe in direct democracy or you don’t. If you’re a voter, you should believe in it,” said Bengs.

A 10-day public comment period for the proposed constitutional amendment runs through July 8th. Bengs said he hopes to start collecting signatures for the measure within the next month. He will need to collect 35,017 signatures by May of 2024 in order to get the measure on the ballot.

“When the majority of people vote for something, you have the clearest example of what the will of the people is. To deprive the legislature, partisan legislature, from the opportunity to overturn what the people have clearly said they want, it’s a win for democracy,” said Bengs.