PIERRE - Other lawmakers and many citizens scratched their heads two weekends ago over a surprise move in the 2013 session. Why would one of the top members of the Legislature, who is chairman of South Dakota's watershed task force, suddenly want to kill it?
Especially after just eight months of existence, when the law creating the panel said it should remain in effect until Jan. 20, 2015?
And especially when the panel's purpose was to address drainage issues and develop possible paths for county government to take over the long term?
The man behind the moves under way in the Legislature is House Speaker Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City.
Two weeks ago, as he chaired the House Judiciary Committee, a dead bill dealing with improper influence of elections was resurrected by its prime sponsor, Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids.
Then Rep. Dean Wink, R-Howes, who as speaker pro tem is the No. 2 presiding officer in the House behind Gosch, turned it into a bill that would repeal the watershed task force.
The House committee voted 11-0 to endorse pulling the plug on the task force. That was on a Friday. By the end of that weekend, some of the committee members were wishing they could take their aye votes back after hearing from their constituents.
On Feb. 20, the episode turned stranger. When the anti-task-force bill came up for House debate, Hansen stepped forward with a new amendment that would keep it in effect - sort of.
The Legislature's Executive Board would be given the power to determine the task force's agenda and study plan, but that decision would depend on the participating groups and individuals donating enough money and other resources to the Executive Board to pay for at least half of the expenses.
House members voted 63-6 to support the re-revised version of House Bill 1235. It now goes to the Senate for further action. The lead sponsor in the Senate of the original version of 1235, dealing with elections, is Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen.
Novstrup was a co-sponsor of last year's original bill that eventually transformed into the version that created the task force. That 2012 piece of legislation originally aimed to create a new James River watershed district because of the numerous improprieties discovered in a state audit of the then-management of the existing James River district.
Novstrup wanted the James River district's operations cleaned up ethically and financially. He pushed hard in the Legislature in ways that eventually led the district's elected board to appoint a new manager.
To make matters more confusing now regarding Rep. Hansen's bill this year, the prime sponsor of the 2012 legislation was Sen. Tom Hansen, R-Huron.
Sen. Hansen's bill last year eventually was turned into authorization for the watershed task force, partially because county commissions were backing out of drainage-commission activities over concerns about liability in landowners' drainage fights.
The task force met only twice last year. A third meeting was scheduled, a two-day event in Aberdeen on Dec. 10-11, but extreme weather forced the cancellation. Consequently, the task force didn't officially meet to propose any legislation for the 2013 session or gather public comments on specific measures.
What did happen, however, was that five of the legislators who served on the task force in 2012 submitted a piece of legislation this year. It was Senate Bill 179, with Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, as prime sponsor, and Gosch as the lead House sponsor. It called for establishing a uniform drainage permit that counties would have the option to use.
179 set off an uprising from farmers and agricultural vendors, including many who support the practice of installing drain tiles to speed the removal of excess water from crop fields. At a Senate committee hearing held Feb. 13, there were 18 different opponents who testified against it.
Those opponents included lobbyists for the Corn Growers, Soybean Producers, Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, County Commissioners Association, South Dakota Wheat, Cattlemen and various individual producers from a half-dozen counties in the James and Big Sioux river valleys.
The bill was killed by the committee 6-1.
That was on a Wednesday. Two days later, the reaction came in the House Judiciary Committee to kill the task force altogether.