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South Dakota voters weigh future of ballot measures, taxes

June 6, 2022 GMT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Primary voters will decide Tuesday whether to add a provision to South Dakota’s constitution making it more difficult to pass ballot measures that raise taxes or significantly expand government funds, a showdown over direct democracy in the state that pioneered voter-initiated laws.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which will appear as Amendment C on ballots, would place a 60% vote threshold on citizen-initiated ballot measures that raise taxes or spend more than $10 million within five years of enactment.

As Republicans have come to dominate politics in the state where the initiative and referendum processes were first enacted in 1898, the Legislature has tussled in recent years with voter-initiated measures. Supporters say they are necessary to pass popular law proposals that lawmakers are unwilling to take up. But lawmakers who proposed the constitutional amendment say it would protect from new citizen-proposed taxes by instituting a similar vote threshold the Legislature faces to levy a new tax.

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“Taxes are kind of like constitutional amendments, they last a long, long time,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, an organization supporting the campaign for Amendment C. “They are such a big deal they should command a super-majority.”

The Amendment C proposal was sparked by a separate citizen-proposed constitutional amendment to expand federal Medicaid eligibility, which will appear on ballots in November’s general election. Republican lawmakers, anticipating the Medicaid expansion fight, pushed Amendment C to the primary ballot, even though fewer voters will almost certainly decide on it than if it had also been placed on the general election ballot.

During the 2020 election cycle, for example, the number of primary ballots cast was roughly one-third of the general election. Turnout also skewed Republican, with GOP-registered voters casting 63% of primary ballots despite making up 48% of registered voters.

“Changing the constitution shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Amy Scott-Stolz, the former president of the League of Women Voters, which joined the opposition campaign under her leadership. “Letting the people decide on the issues is a South Dakota tradition and should be kept the way it is.”

The vote on the constitutional amendment has drawn some of the state’s most powerful political groups, with the state Republican party actively campaigning for it and the Democratic party hosting phone bank events to try to dissuade people from approving it.

The National Education Association and hospital systems — which are among the state’s largest employers — have funded a $1.5 million opposition campaign called South Dakotans for Fair Elections; while Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally conservative organization, has spearheaded a $500,000 campaign called South Dakotans Against Higher Taxes.

It will take a simple majority of Tuesday’s vote to enshrine the requirement in the state constitution.