Reports of sexual harassment and violence in Pierre during the legislative session continue to ripple through the state.

You can’t legislative morality or behavior.

You can’t solve all of society’s ills from the floor of the South Dakota Senate or House.

You can’t predict what people will do or prevent the worst in human behavior.

But you can take steps to marginalize the persistent attitude and practices that serve to fuel sexual harassment.

Several leaders in Pierre have made strong statements about how sexual innuendo, inappropriate touching, and outright harassment cannot be tolerated. These are certainly the right things to say. In contrast, other current and former legislators said they don't think there's a persistent problem and the South Dakota Legislature is among the safest for women in the nation. That’s a ridiculous statement, first because you have no way of knowing that, and second because you’re making it in the face of significant evidence to the contrary.

I pointed out on The Patrick Lalley Show on Tuesday the egregious nature of comments by former lawmakers Brian Gosch and Fred Duetsch as evidence of a rampant patriarchy, which minimizes the experiences of women. It’s important to call out this attitude in a public way when it’s expressed. That’s not political correctness or partisanship. That’s human decency and a minimum level of civil behavior we expect from everyone, let alone elected officials.

But like I said, you can’t legislate what’s in someone’s head, even if it’s objectionable. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. This is our government after all, not Pierre’s.

First, just because an event happens off the grounds of the Capitol buiding doesn’t mean it’s not the responsibility of legislative leaders to investigate. In one instance, a lawmaker reportedly asked a lobbyist if he could watch her pee in a bar one evening. The lobbyist reported it to leadership and was told there was nothing he could do because it happened off campus, so to speak. That’s irresponsible at the very least, and clearly a shirking of duty to his staff and other lawmakers, as well as the various other people who do business with the Legislature. There’s a potential for liability there that’s troubling.

Second, it’s not unreasonable to create a standard “code of ethics” for lawmakers, lobbyists and anybody else associated with our Legislature. This doesn’t need to be any sort of binding document, but would set expectations so that even if someone hasn’t spent much time in such a setting, they’d know there are standards of behavior.

There is one action that Gov. Dennis Daugaard and legislative leaders should forward immediately and without equivocation. End the practice of free booze available at the nearly nightly socials hosted by lobbying groups and other special interests. It’s unconscionable that the Legislature gutted the limits on lobbyist gifts included in the voter-passed IM22. The fact that they then exempted food and beverage, from the inflated limits they did pass, is absurd on its face.

The limit is now $100 annually for gifts that legislators and other public officials could accept from lobbyists. Then it will adjusted for inflation. That means it's going up and not down as it should. It should be $5 a year, if that.  A gift is defined as, "anything of value given without compensation, but it doesn't include food, beverage or entertainment for immediate consumption, among other things," according to an Associated Press story.

I understand that the poverty-stricken lawmakers – we really don’t pay them enough, that’s true – may need a nightly meal from the lobbyist food truck, like some sort of outreach mission. So fine, if you want to belly up to the free-for-all buffet supplied by some trade group or professional society, go ahead, pork out baby.

But free booze is something that should be stopped – immediately. It’s mystifying to me how this still exists. It’s a once-common practice in statehouses where the old boys in smoke-filled rooms hashed out policy and traded favors. It’s a bygone -- or going -- culture that needs to end.

That’s not to say that people won’t go out and drink while they are in Pierre. But it shouldn’t be something that flows like water without cost.

That’s not to say that bad things won’t happen in the watering holes of the state capital, far from wandering eyes.

But it’s something we can do, must do, as a statement that the business or our Legislature isn’t a 40-day festival of good times and bad behavior.

That has to end.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Results Radio, Townsquare Media, its staff, contributors, affiliates or advertisers.

 

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