PIERRE, S.D. — When visitors watch the House and Senate debate and vote on bills during South Dakota's legislative session, many don't realize most of the issues already have been hashed out in secret.
For an hour or so before each day's floor session, the lawmakers in each chamber meet in separate, private party caucuses to discuss bills, strategies and other issues.
And in the final days of a legislative session, the lawmakers frequently will stop public debate and disappear into private caucus meetings, said Denise Ross, a former reporter for the Rapid City Journal. The legislators then reappear and decide the fate of the year's most important bills, she said.
"So clearly they are debating and deciding public policy behind closed doors and the vote is merely a formality," Ross said.
Supporters of the decades-old practice argue that the private meetings help lawmakers learn about bills in an atmosphere where they feel free to ask questions and provide information without worrying their remarks might be misinterpreted.
"The misconception is we're going there to strategize and it's all political maneuvering," said Rep. Larry Rhoden of Union Center, leader of the House Republican majority. "The fact is 95 percent of what we do in caucus is allow our members the opportunity to get better educated on the legislation that's coming forward."
All four political caucuses in South Dakota's Legislature are mostly closed. But Sen. Scott Heidepriem of Sioux Falls, leader of the Democratic minority, said he would like to open the Senate Democratic caucus. He knows such a change, however, would take time because lawmakers have become accustomed to the closed caucus system.
"I don't see why we would want to close it ever to anybody, and that includes the media," Heidepriem said.
He rejects the argument that closed caucuses lead to a more freewheeling discussion of issues.
"I think people need to ask themselves what are they afraid of. What are they afraid of people hearing them say? What they really think?" Heidepriem said.
South Dakota is one of 10 states where lawmakers hold closed caucuses daily, according to a survey by the Associated Press. Legislatures in more than a dozen other states hold closed caucuses once or more a week, and a half dozen states feature such closed meetings on an irregular basis.
Eleven states have open legislative caucuses, and the rest have a mixture of open and closed caucuses.
In South Dakota, as in some other states, the Legislature is specifically exempt from the state's open-meetings law.
Ross, who covered the Legislature for six years, said she objected because lawmakers hold closed meetings in the Capitol, the most public of all buildings in South Dakota.
South Dakota's legislative caucuses generally have been closed over the years, although Senate Democrats in some years have opened theirs to the public. The largest caucus, the House Republicans, allowed reporters to attend throughout the 1980s, with the discussions off the record unless reporters could get lawmakers to comment on the record after the meeting.
In recent years, reporters and the general public have been banned from the caucuses.
All lawmakers now attend party caucuses, but a few mavericks skipped some meetings in past years.
Jim Thompson, a radio talk-show host and rodeo announcer, decided not to attend Republican caucuses when he was in the Senate in 1996. He formed his own Independent Thinkers Caucus, which attracted a few other lawmakers, but he later rejoined the GOP group.
Thompson said the party-caucus system helped turn seemingly neutral issues into pitched, partisan political fights. "I'm trying to change government," he said at the time.
Dave Munson, a 24-year legislative veteran who is now mayor of Sioux Falls, said he sometimes didn't attend caucuses because he had heard both sides of most issues many times before.
"I sometimes took a break and went down and listened to what was going on in the hallways," Munson said.
Munson said he never understood the need for closed party caucuses, but the meetings never bothered him. In any event, reporters and those interested in a bill can find out what happens in a caucus within a few minutes of a meeting's end, he said.
Dave Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, said he was not bothered by the closed caucuses because such discussions are just part of the Legislature's organizational process.
"While I don't like closed meetings philosophically, I think the closed-door caucus policies you see in this Legislature are there because they're part of the whole process," Bordewyk said. "They're going to have those discussions somewhere, somehow, even if they're not allowed to be part of the day's routine inside the Capitol."
Senate Republican Leader Dave Knudson of Sioux Falls said lawmakers have inherited a system of closed caucuses, and he agrees they must discuss some issues in private.
While caucuses spend most of their time making sure lawmakers understand the bills coming up for votes, Senate Republicans also must discuss how to react if Democrats try various parliamentary maneuvers, he said.
"I think it does facilitate franker discussion of issues that are of interest to one party versus the other," Knudson said.
Tactics cannot be discussed in open meetings, "since by their nature you don't want to telegraph your punch," Knudson said.
But Heidepriem said Senate Democrats never felt the need to try to outfox Knudson and the Senate Republicans because both parties cooperated closely this year.
A closed caucus would be most useful for plotting strategies in "the bloodlust between parties fighting for control of the chamber," but the public wants Republicans and Democrats to stop such fighting, Heidepriem said.
"The other thing to remember is the caucus system is not described in the Constitution. It's not described in the statutes," Heidepriem said.
But Rhoden, the House Republican leader, said it was worth remembering that a caucus is defined as a closed meeting.
Some have complained that public debate is often limited because lawmakers hold extensive discussions on many issues in private. Rhoden said caucus discussions often improve public debate because lawmakers get thorough explanations of bills but must save their arguments on the bill for the open floor sessions.
House Democratic Leader Dale Hargens of Miller said he was worried about closed caucuses when he first was elected six years ago, but he now believes the private meetings help lawmakers understand the pros and cons of the more than 500 bills introduced each year.
House Democrats take united stands on a few issues each year, but only after reaching a consensus, he said. "It's not that we beat people down and tell them that's how we want them to vote."
Hargens said he was bothered more by the fact that the Republican majority shows up for public committee hearings knowing which lawmakers will make motions to approve, kill or amend each bill.