Share story

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota voters last year rejected a push by a Georgia-based car title lender to amend the state constitution to allow unlimited interest rates after the company spent more than $1.8 million on the campaign.

Almost all of that money — over $1.5 million — went to collecting thousands of signatures just to get the amendment on the ballot, but the company’s contributions didn’t become public until months after voters signed on and their names had been submitted to the state.

A new batch of ballot measure campaigns — on everything from government ethics to marijuana laws — are now collecting signatures before next month’s submission deadline to get on the 2018 ballot. And campaign finance rules still don’t require them to reveal who is paying for the push until next year.

But several South Dakota officials have said recently they’re open to more financial reporting requirements for initiatives earlier in the election cycle, while supporters are in the vital stage of shopping their causes before voters. One state senator, after being contacted by The Associated Press, said he is having legislation drafted and would solicit feedback from other lawmakers before next year’s legislative session.

“It would inform citizens so they would have some chance of knowing who is actually paying for a ballot committee’s work before they sign the petition,” said Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba, who helped lead a successful 2016 initiative to cap payday loan interest rates.

Nesiba plans to run idea past other members of a legislative panel that met this year to weigh changes to South Dakota’s ballot question process. A different campaign finance task force is to meet Monday at the Capitol, and Chairman Jordan Youngberg, a Republican senator, said he’s open to discussing the issue.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, said in an email that the governor hasn’t reviewed a bill on the topic, but “thinks the argument for this makes sense.”

Republican officials have frequently complained about out-of-state interests experimenting with South Dakota’s laws and constitution and have discussed changes to the state’s ballot question system.

House Speaker Mark Mickelson said he has no objections to addressing the issue, but said it’s not at the top of his list of desired changes to the ballot measure process. Mickelson is currently pursuing two measures of his own: One would ban out-of-state political contributions for ballot questions, and the other would raise tobacco taxes to improve tech school affordability.

The 2016 election season featured 10 ballot questions and more than $10 million from out-of-state sources, including Alpharetta-based car title lender Select Management Resources LLC, which also funded opposition to the short-term lending interest rate cap that voters passed. CEO Rod Aycox hasn’t returned telephone messages requesting comment from The AP since June 2015, while constitutional amendment sponsor Lisa Furlong largely avoided speaking publicly about the campaign.

Records filed when a campaign organizes do list a committee chair and treasurer. And some initiative campaigns voluntarily discuss funders with the public.

For example, a national nonprofit in August publicly pledged $140,000 to help supporters gather signatures for a constitutional amendment that would move South Dakota to an open primary system for many political races.

More than 10 initiatives proposed for 2018 have been approved to circulate. Initiated measures need nearly 14,000 valid signatures, while constitutional amendments require almost 28,000 names.

“I’d like to know who is funding the marijuana petition, who is funding the tobacco tax,” Nesiba said. “That’d be useful to know, and it’d be useful to know now.”