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SD Democrats fight putting ‘Marsy’s Law’ fix on June ballot

March 1, 2018

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Emergency legislation that would place a constitutional fix to the “Marsy’s Law” victims’ bill of rights on the June primary ballot advanced Thursday over protests from Democratic lawmakers in South Dakota.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations voted 7-2 to approve the bill, which would put the constitutional amendment before voters on June 5 and budget $200,000 for the secretary of state to pay for the unusual move, among other provisions.

Senate Democratic Leader Billie Sutton said he opposes spending $200,000 to place the measure before voters in the lower-turnout primary election. Democrats don’t currently have primary contests for governor or U.S. House that would draw their voters to the polls.

“I just don’t think we want to continue to go down this road of putting it on the primary when we clearly know that in the general you’re going to have a better turnout and more people are going to weigh in on that,” said Sutton, who is the sole Democratic candidate for governor.

Secretary of State Shantel Krebs said voters have never decided a ballot question in a primary. A special election for statewide ballot questions was last held in April 2001.

The Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment passed with about 60 percent support in November 2016, but critics say it’s causing problems for law enforcement and prosecutors and spiking costs for counties. It guarantees crime victims and their family members the right to privacy, protection from harassment or abuse and timely notice of trial, sentencing and post-judgment proceedings.

The new proposal would ask voters to make changes to the amendment including requiring victims to opt into many rights, explicitly allowing authorities to share information with the public to help solve crimes and limiting the definition of a victim.

Lawmakers are advancing changes to the amendment under an agreement with the campaign that has persuaded voters in several states to approve versions of Marsy’s Law. Supporters say approving the tweaks in June would fix problems sooner than waiting until November and could save counties money.

Republican House Speaker Mark Mickelson, who negotiated the compromise, said he’s confident Democratic voters “will support fixing this problem whenever the election is.” He also said it would be helpful for the measure to stand out as the only question on the ballot.

Ryan Erwin, a strategy consultant for the Marsy’s Law for All campaign, said the group would work to pass the compromise amendment if it appears on the June or November ballot. But he said it’s better to clear up any ambiguity sooner rather than later.

“If there were an election tomorrow, we would be for that,” he said.

The bill will require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to pass. An emergency provision means it would take effect immediately and would also block opponents from referring it to the ballot for a public vote. Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he would sign the bill.

The actual constitutional amendment that would ask voters to make changes to Marsy’s Law is advancing at the Republican-controlled Capitol as a separate piece of legislation. The state Senate voted Wednesday to approve that measure.

South Dakota would be the first state to alter Marsy’s Law out of the six that have enacted it. It’s named after California college student Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was stalked and killed in 1983 by an ex-boyfriend.

Her brother, billionaire Henry Nicholas, has bankrolled constitutional amendments approved by voters in California, Ohio, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Montana’s Supreme Court recently tossed the constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2016, citing flaws in how it was written.

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