2016 legislative session: Day 18 “…a little help from my friends…”

The Senate Education Committee voted 6-1 Tuesday to endorse the latest proposal from Sen. Phyllis Heineman, R-Sioux Falls, to establish a scholarship program to help families afford tuition at non-public K-12 schools in South Dakota. Heineman fought like a mountain lion last year to get a version of the concept through the Senate before it perished on a tie vote in the House. This year, she’s proposing to limit the program to $2.5 million; it would allow insurance companies to donate money to a non-profit organization to provide scholarships and the companies in turn could reduce their state insurance-premium taxes by 80 percent of the donated amount. The measure, SB 159, could come up for debate by the full Senate as early as Thursday afternoon, although the Senate might be more inclined to carry the issue over to next week.

One of the committee members, Sen. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark, listened intently as Heineman presented her bill. The panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, looked to the side to listen to a question from another committee member. Outside the crowded hearing room, people listened from the hallway. Among them Jim Terwilliger of the state Bureau of Finance and Management, aka the governor’s budget office, listening at the door, while state Board of Regents member and former state Education Secretary Jim Hanson of Pierre paid close attention from a chair in the hall where he watched each witness testify.


Senate poised to require job interviews for veterans w/update

So far in three votes there hasn’t been a nay cast against HB 1056, legislation that would guarantee interviews to armed forces veterans who meet the minimum qualifications for jobs available in state government, school districts, county governments or city governments. It’s currently waiting for action by the Senate.

The prime sponsor is Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence. The lead Senate sponsor is Sen. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark. The House State Affairs Committee recommended its passage 13-0, and the full House of Representatives followed two days later with 68-0 approval on Jan. 27. The Senate Commerce and Energy Committee received it next and endorsed it 7-0 on Feb. 4. The Senate could act any day.

While the measure would guarantee interviews, it doesn’t guarantee jobs. Some people involved in the process would like to see veterans get a full preference and be guaranteed the jobs too. Trying to go that final step likely would spur pushback, albeit cautiously, because sometimes the top candidates for job openings are within the organizations where they have proven themselves but aren’t veterans.

The Daugaard administration supports the legislation n its current form.

UPDATE: The Senate debated the bill Tuesday afternoon and passed it. Sen. Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall, said servicemen and servicewomen aren’t looking for preference. “The veterans are just seeking fairness in the competitive process for a position,” Van Gerpen said. Sen. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark, said the goal is “a fair shake.” Greenfield said it only covers public-sector employers. “It’s one small acknowledgement of the self-less sacrifice so many people have engaged in. It would be a real shame if we couldn’t pass this bill as a small token of our gratitude,” Greenfield said. The roll call was 32-1. The bill now goes to the governor.

2016 legislative session: Day 17 “Hear me now?”

The Legislature reared back into gear Monday morning for week five. Two lobbyists, Brenda Forman representing South Dakota agricultural cooperatives, and Deb Mortenson, representing the Associated General Contractors, chatted with Sen. Jim Peterson, D-Revillo, in a third-floor hallway. Upstairs on the fourth floor Sen. Ried Holien, R-Watertown, presented his argument to the Senate State Affairs Committee that county governments should be allowed to levy a half-cent sales tax for specific jail and courthouse projects. He preceded good presentations from sheriffs and commissioners from Codington and Walworth counties. Several committee members said they would like to see an analysis of county needs as a first step. The bill died but the conversation started.


The voter-registration tide continued last month

The latest monthly voter-registration totals for South Dakota show more of the same. As of Feb. 1, Republicans stood at 238,222, up nearly 600 since the Jan. 5 count. Democrats sat at 167.064, down approximately 200 since Jan. 5. And the “other” category that takes in other parties, independents and non-affiliated voters reached 109,437, a gain of 671.

Looking back to the February 2015 registrations, Republicans currently are some 3,100 behind. Democrats are more than 8,600 behind. And the other column is up more than 5,000.

The numbers bounce month by month and year to year. But the tide continues to wash out for Democrats, stay relatively stable for Republicans and wash in for the others. Looking back to February 2009 tells us, again, just how fast and how far the situation has changed for South Dakota’s two major political parties. Republicans then had 242,246; Democrats 205,399; and others 84,595.

During that same span of seven years, Democrats lost the U.S. House seat, a U.S. Senate seat and a state Public Utilities Commission seat. Republicans since November 2014 control all of South Dakota’s elected statewide and federal offices.

The Legislature’s ‘new’ budgeting process

Come Wednesday, Feb. 10, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations must have its general-fund revenue estimates done. That’s roughly three to four weeks earlier than in past legislative sessions. Two caveats: 1) Nothing prevents the committee from revising its estimates when the time arrives to send the general appropriations bill for approval in the Senate (it’s SB 170 this year) and the House of Representatives next month; and 2) If the estimates are way off because the economy has turned one way or another in the next 12 months, there is the supplemental appropriations bill same time next year. The supplemental appropriations bill has become a standard feature for the governor and the Legislature to make adjustments in February and March for the final three to four months of each fiscal year that ends June 30. In the 1980s, the Legislature was very conservative in its revenue estimates, so that there was almost always more revenue than needed. The practice changed substantially in the decades since then, with structural deficits becoming the norm, and lawmakers looking for ways to patch over shortfalls with one-time accounting maneuvers. Under Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s administration, the budget gimmicks gradually ended. This year, the appropriations committee chose to get its general-bill hearings on departments, offices and agencies done in roughly half the time. Now those 18 legislators will focus on special appropriations bills and put together the general bill in the coming two to four weeks. The deadline for special appropriations bills to move from a committee is March 1 to the full Senate or full House for initial approval no later than March 2. Those are working days 30 and 31 of the 38 working days this session. Now we get to see how well the different pace works.

Is it time to reduce Legislature’s size?

Some people in South Dakota love to debate government efficiency. Is it time to talk about the Legislature in the same way?

There are 35 legislative districts, each with one seat in the Senate and two seats in the House of Representatives. The lawmakers are working less than ever before, it seems, with their shift to four-day work weeks and essentially nothing or almost nothing being debated in either chamber on the afternoon of the fourth day of each week.

This session also might be in record territory for committees that don’t hold meetings because they don’t have bills to hear. The latest hard statistic came Friday. The bill count for the 2016 session is 418. That’s down from 429 last year. The trend has been downward for years now, according to a chart kept by the South Dakota Newspaper Association.

And, the Joint Committee on Appropriations finished its department, office and agency budget hearings Friday, a month ahead of normal.

All of this might be good, if the desire is a less-hurried process.

Meanwhile there’s now legislation to pay lawmakers for the months of April through December: $500 per month for all, plus another $500 for the House and Senate caucus leaders and officers and for the 18 members of the appropriations committee.

A strong argument can be made that a $6,000 annual salary doesn’t really attract people to spend January through March in Pierre. Where to find the money for the off-season pay?

If efficiency arguments apply, the first thought might be eliminating 35 seats in the House, one per district. That would produce $6,000 of salary salvage annually per each of the 35 seats plus the mileage and per diem payments.

Those savings would go a long way toward providing the $9,000 raises for the 29 leaders and appropriators and the $4,500 raises for the 41 rank-and-file lawmakers who would remain after the down-sizing to the 70.

Another route could be reducing 35 districts to 25 districts. That would eliminate 30 seats. It also would make districts larger and dilute rural representation. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the beholder.

Lawmakers seem to be proving by their actions the workload isn’t there any longer for 105. With the state’s restriction that a legislator can’t be elected to a fifth consecutive term in the same chamber, reducing to 35 in each chamber would make leadership slots and committee chairmanships more accessible too.

And if the workload eventually does come back, the Legislature could go back to 105 again.

Just some food for thought to add to your Super Bowl spread.

2016 legislative session: Day 16 “Last roundup”

The Legislature’s budget panel, officially known as the Joint Committee on Appropriations, finished its individual hearings on departments, agencies and offices Friday morning, approximately one month earlier than in previous sessions. Last in the chute was the state Department of Education. Among those asking questions were Sen. Phyllis Heineman, R-Sioux Falls (with Sen. David Omdahl, R-Sioux Falls, and Rep. Jeff Partridge, R-Rapid City, to her right and far right respectively). Sen. Scott Parsley, D-Madison, listened intently to answers to his questions. During a break the two co-chairs engaged in a discussion, with Rep. Justin Cronin, R-Gettysburg, listening to Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford. At the other end of the big table, state Education Secretary Melody Schopp talked during the break with some of the legislative pages assigned to the committee.


2016 legislative session: Day 15 “Making their cases”

Thursday marked the final day in the 2016 session for individual lawmakers to introduce legislation. Lobbyists working ahead to get bills passed or killed used the morning hours to make their cases, especially in the House of Representatives. Below: Timothy Even, a railroad workers lobbyist, talked with Rep. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen (at left)DSCN0017, while…


Justin Smith, a Sioux Falls lawyer with a variety of clients, spoke with Rep. Joshua Klumb, R-Mount Vernon (at left below).


The daytime drama of a Senate roll call

SB 3 isn’t a giant piece of legislation but it would help some owners of agriculture property whose tracts include smaller parcels separated from their main parcels. The measure would have changed the definition of agricultural producer so the split-off tracts could qualify for the less-expensive agricultural classification for the general-education tax levy. But legislation that comes from the Legislature’s special oversight committee on agricultural property assessments often struggles when it reaches the full Legislature, and such was the case again Wednesday afternoon in the Senate.

Despite the best attempts by Sen. Larry Tidemann, R-Brookings, and Sen. Jim Peterson, D-Revillo, the Senate rejected SB 3 on a roll-call vote of 17 ayes and 18 nays. Right away in the alphabetical tally Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, passed and Sen. Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, wasn’t on the Senate floor when his name was called. The bill appeared to be in trouble as the nays accumulated, especially from Rapid City and Sioux Falls. But a late run of six consecutive ayes from Democrat Billie Sutton of Burke, Tidemann, Republican Craig Tieszen of Rapid City, Republican Bill Van Gerpen of Tyndall, Republican Mike Vehle of Mitchell and Republican Jim White of Huron put the bill at the edge of passing with the count at 17 ayes and 16 nays.

The roll call came back around to Bradford. He voted nay. The possibility stood that Lt. Gov. Matt Michels could choose to vote and break a 17-17 tie. Curd had returned to the floor by then, however, and was in a conversation with another senator. He called out nay. (The roll call tally is here.) After a long pause, with Michels not yet calling the next bill for consideration, Tidemann gave his notice to reconsider. SB 3 will be the first matter the Senate takes up on its calendar this afternoon (Thursday).

In a rare coincidence, the House of Representatives also will take up a reconsideration this afternoon, and also dealing with property taxes, on a measure to provide a lower tax-levy classification for leased residential property.  HB 1086 came from Rep. Don Haggar, R-Sioux Falls; the concept of a lower levy has gradually gained a degree of acceptance among urban legislators who hear from their builders and developers about the tax burden as they try to provide more housing for workers and senior citizens who prefer to rent. Haggar faces a steeper climb than Tidemann. The House votes by machine, with all members who are present choosing between the green and red buttons at each of their desks at the same time. Haggar’s bill needed at least 36 ayes. It received 28 ayes and 39 nays (the tally is here). It received strong support from Sioux Falls-area legislators but minimal support from rural legislators and had a surprising level of opposition from Rapid City-area lawmakers.

2016 legislative session: Day 14 “Hunt vs. SDHSAA”

Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Brandon, lost in one committee Wednesday but won in another committee an hour later in his efforts to bring more control by the Legislature over the South Dakota High School Activities Association. The House Education Committee on a vote of 8-5 killed his measure, HB 1111, that sought to make the association subject to state government’s rule-making process and the Legislature’s rule-review process. But in the room next door, the House State Affairs Committee voted 10-3 for an amended version of his bill, HB 1112, that now would require the association to get approval from the Legislature for its transgender participation policy. The full House of Representatives could take up HB 1112 as early as Friday afternoon.

Among those watching the State Affairs hearing was Sen. Jenna Haggar, R-Sioux Falls. Among those who testified for HB 1112 was Linda Schauer, representing the Concerned Women For America (at right in photo). Among those who spoke against it were Rob Munson, executive director for the School Administrators of South Dakota, (shown speaking to Mitch Richter in audience) and Terri Bruce of Rapid City (shown on one of the room’s video screens), who said: “I was born female but my gender identity is male.”