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Guest Column

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Legislator Misconduct Difficult to Fix


By Senator Bill Napoli

District 35, South Dakota

"When government governs and legislators legislate, woe be unto you."

How true. Because of the scandals during the last several legislative sessions, all sorts of "cures" are being considered concerning the page and intern programs.

In a recent article, Bob Mercer summarized all the talk about ethics by those who feel government can "Be All," "Is All," and will solve every problem people have.

First of all, shame on Bob Mercer for trying to insinuate the legislature is full of oversexed partiers, intent only on having easy access to the legislative pages and interns.

I've spent the last thirteen years serving with some of the finest and most respected people in our state; all elected by you the voters. Mercer was correct when he wrote, "There has been an increasing tilt toward less play and more business." That is true and reflective of our present caliber of legislators. But, Mercer's suggested cures for the problems would ultimately destroy the enjoyment and learning experience of the legislative process by the pages, and make it much more difficult to hire interns.

Mercer lumped interns and pages together in his cures for these problems. Interns are in their twenties, thirties or forties. Some interns are married with children. Some have been elected officials. These interns are mature adults and do not need big brother babysitting their every move during the legislative session.

Mercer's proposed rules state interns cannot attend a house party. Do we arrest them if they do? Remember, these interns are adults over twenty-one. What about pages going to meals with legislators? I have made it a point to take the pages I sponsor out to dinner while they are serving their two weeks at the legislature. First, to get to know the young person, second to thank them for being involved in politics, and third to show these young people some respect. I do agree young adult pages certainly shouldn't go to legislators "sleeping quarters."

But, interns are adults, and if an intern decides to sit in on a discussion about legislation or some issue in a legislator's room or elsewhere, there's nothing wrong with that. We hire interns who are top quality educated adults capable of making their own decisions in their off duty hours. Do we fire them if they violate Mercer's proposed rules?

Mercer said, legislators shouldn't be allowed to accept private meals from lobbyists. This bothers me the most about Mercer's fixes. I've gone to dinner or coffee with many lobbyists. That sure as heck does not mean I am selling my vote. I may want to run some legislation, or idea past them. Maybe I want to learn more about an issue, or why they are proposing a certain piece of legislation. A lot can be learned from these private dinners, or coffee meetings, things a legislator cannot learn in the hustle and bustle during the legislative day.

I hope Jeremiah will forgive me for using his name. He is the sage, and very wise, stalwart, lobbyist I try to go to dinner with whenever he asks me. Jeremiah Murphy has an unsurpassed memory of the legislature as far back as anyone would like to go. Jeremiah, among others, has taught me how to be an informed legislator, how to navigate the system. I visit with him whenever I can, to get the history of proposed bills, or even the other side of an issue. Murphy is invaluable as an educational asset to all legislators, even though he's one of those "lobbyists."

If the Mercer fixes pass, and we legislators can't sit privately at dinner or coffee with a lobbyist to discuss issues, Mercer's fixes would further isolate legislators from lobbyists, the business community and even from their constituents, further eroding the access to knowledge legislators need to do their job. That job, bottom line, is to pass good legislation and stop bad legislation.

Mercer's fixes are just plain bad fixes, and I do not believe fixes are needed. We have an excellent page program that teaches our young adults about the legislative process and politics. I have never met, nor sponsored, a page that did not love their experience, and wanted very much to come back as an intern or even a legislator.

Do I sound upset, or even angry? Yes, I am, because we have a Capitol filled with respected elected officials, the best young adults, great interns and dedicated staff. They do not need this black cloud cast upon their reputations.

I am proud of our legislature and the process. I believe the legislature will work well for generations to come.

Bill Napoli is a South Dakota state senator, representing District 35 in and around Rapid City.


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