Rail rehab will cover Chamberlain to Presho

Some environmental-related paperwork remains to be completed before the state Department of Transportation receives the federal TIGER grant of nearly $12.7 million for the next segment of work on the Mitchell-Rapid City rail line. State government owns the line.

DOT official Bruce Lindholm told the state Railroad Board at its meeting Wednesday that “substantial completion” of the rehabilitation from Chamberlain to one mile west of Presho is expected in September 2016. He said that means trains could start running on the line in two years. “It’s not set in stone yet,” he said about the schedule.

Plans are still taking shape but one contractor is likely, in part because there aren’t access roads and there are many bridges on the 11 miles or so between Oacoma and Reliance, according to Lindholm. He said design work is starting and there will be weed spraying and other vegetation removal this fall using state funds.

The project’s multiple sources of funding from South Dakota strengthened the application. The Legislature led by Rep. Jim Schaefer, R-Kennebec, and Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, appropriated $7.2 million that was supported by Gov. Dennis Daugaard. The state board made another $7 million available. The local Rails to the Future organization raised more than $1 million from producers and agriculture groups. There also was support for the project from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

“The amount of private money was phenomenal,” Lindholm said. “To everybody involved it was a real win.”

Schaefer said Wednesday that word from a governor’s aide is a desire to rehab the next dozen miles from Presho to Vivian. Schaefer said recycling the old rail might help accomplish that. Lindholm offered a different perspective on the old 85-pound rail. He said the project so far is using sturdier 110-pound rail from Mitchell west. He said the 85-pound rail probably can be sold for salvage price or higher and the money might be needed for the work to reach Presho.

Railroad Board chairman Todd Yeaton of Kimball, who manages an elevator on the restored MRC line, said he’d like to see the rehabilitation continue west to Vivian and all the way to Murdo if possible. “Hat off to all involved. It’s a definite win for the state,” Yeaton said.

Alex Huff, a retired railroader who previously ran the Dakota Southern Railway on the MRC line, said the last loaded train left Presho in 2007. He praised everyone who contributed in the TIGER process. It is the second time South Dakota received federal support for rehabilitation of the line. “It was a a good piece of work,” he said.

Railroad Board member Jerry Cope asked, “What happens if the bills come in high?” Lindholm replied, “We have to find more money.” He added that cost reductions would be sought. “Hopefully we didn’t miss it too far,” he said.

TIGER by the way stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. The work that is planned for the latest segment includes the railroad bridge crossing the Missouri River between Chamberlain and Oacoma.

Lottery expects solid return on Monopoly

The South Dakota Lottery is on its way to offering another lotto-style game. This one costs $5 per ticket and is called Monopoly Millionaires’ Club. Lottery officials estimate their first-year sales at $2,080,000, according to a statement filed with the Legislature’s rules review committee. The lottery’s executive director, Norm Lingle, said the estimate was based on 5 cents per 800,000 South Dakotans multiplied by 52 weeks. From that, prizes will run $1,040,000, while retailers will get 5 percent commission for $104,000. The lottery’s administrative expenses are estimated at $364,624. That leaves a net of $571,376 for the lottery and the state treasury. The drawings for the new game will be Friday nights starting Oct. 24. Sales begin in South Dakota on Oct. 19. The rules review committee gave final clearance Tuesday to proceeding with the new game.

Yes, that was Aaron Hicks

Up and down and all around has been the professional baseball career of Aaron Hicks so far with the Minnesota Twins organization. Once envisioned as the latest in a great line of Twins playing center field, Hicks was returned to the minors for seasoning this season after struggling at majors level. He is back up the big club as part of the September roster expansion. Last night, in his only hit of the game, he raced to first base ahead of the throw from the middle infield and was called safe. That allowed Chris Herrmann, pinch running for Kurt Suzuki, to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs for a 4-3 Minnesota victory over Detroit. The game was well-pitched by Ricky Nolasco, who held a 2-0 lead for the Twins after eight innings. Glen Perkins gave up a two-out home run to J.D. Martinez for three runs in the top of the ninth. Joe Nathan, who held the job of ninth-inning closer for the Twins earlier in his career before Perkins, couldn’t hold the lead for the Tigers. Nathan walked Trevor Plouffe, Doug Bernier pinch-ran and Suzuki’s base hit into center field bounced past a diving Ezequiel Carrera for a double to make the score 3-3. The Twins have been struggling down the final weeks of the season, losing about three times as often as they’ve won during the last month. For the Tigers, it was a blown chance in another way, because the Kansas City Royals lost last night as well (to the Chicago White Sox). The Tigers lead the American League Central Division, followed by the Royals, in their battle for the division title and a sure spot in the playoffs. The Royals are in the second slot meanwhile for the two wild card teams who will play each other for the right to join the three division winners in the playoffs. The Twins currently stand at 64 wins and 87 losses, much worse than I thought this season would be. That is second-worst in the American League, better than only Texas. The Tigers are 84-67, followed by the Royals at 82-68. In their last 10 games, the Twins are 3-7, worst in the AL.

Governor’s task force working on capital outlay tax

The group assembled by Gov. Dennis Daugaard to analyze and offer possible changes to the capital outlay tax levy used by school districts throughout South Dakota is at least one or two meetings away from making its recommendations and findings. Mike Houdyshell, director of the property and special taxes division in the state Department of Revenue, gave an overview of the work to members of the Legislature’s task force on agriculture land valuations Monday.

Houdyshell said there’s an arbitrary limit in place now that limits some school districts much more than others in the use of capital outlay levies. One of those on the ag-land task force who attested to that was former legislator Paul Dennert of Columbia. Dennert said his farm land in the Aberdeen school district faces much higher capital-outlay taxes than his land in the Frederick school district.

Houdyshell said the governor’s work group will meet again on Sept. 23 and they’ll know then whether they would need more meetings. He said schools’ revenue from capital outlay taxes grew at an average annual rate of 6 percent during the past 10 years while other tax revenues for schools grew at 4 percent. He said that’s not sustainable and the increase in capital outlay revenues seems directly linked to the increases in agriculture land values under the current productivity system.

The ag-land valuation task force’s chairman, Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, also serves on the governor’s work group, as do several other legislators. Rhoden said the ag-land valuations task force probably needs to see data from the capital-outlay work group before the ag-land group can make any recommendations for changes in the 2015 legislative session.

Rhoden said legislators are looking to protect property owners on one hand but also want schools adequately funded. Many school districts turned to capital outlay increasingly in recent years after the 2011 cut in state aid to schools. The Legislature loosened capital outlay restrictions to help cushion the revenue strain. Now the question is how to allow schools to get enough revenue if capital outlay is put under tougher restrictions.

The difficulty for farmers and ranchers is that capital outlay is a tax across the board on property, much like a bond-issue levy, while the state aid formula imposes three sets of levies, with the lowest on ag land, followed by owner-occupied homes and the highest on all other property including commercial. This could be one of the thorniest issues of the 2015 legislative session.

Some Democratic backlash over column about Pressler

I received some interesting comments from Democrats about the Capitol Notebook column I wrote for the weekend newspapers regarding the candidacy of former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who’s running for his old seat again 18 years after he lost it to now-retiring U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.

Pressler is a former Republican who’s running as an independent and doing surprisingly well. Johnson is a Democrat who edged Pressler in 1996 largely because Democrats had a vastly superior organization at the counties-level for getting out the vote.

(Republicans finally learned to match that GOTV effort with John Thune’s near victory over Johnson in 2002 and his defeat of U.S. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004. The lessons that Thune mastered, combined with the stall in Democratic voter registration in recent years, has turned South Dakota into a near-total Republican stronghold.)

On Saturday night I received a phone call from a man who said he was Steve Jarding. Jarding is currently the campaign manager for Rick Weiland, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Experience told me instantly that phone calls from political types after 9 p.m. on a Saturday likely won’t be productive, unless there is breaking news. There wasn’t any breaking news.

Instead, this caller asked if he could call me back Sunday. I said Monday morning would be better. We had family visiting for the weekend. The caller and I settled on 9 o’clock. There wasn’t a call this morning.

I received an email from a long-time Democratic activist. I remain unsure what the real point was, other than to raise again some of the same points that were made against Pressler in 1996.

I don’t know that Pressler can pass Weiland or the Republican nominee and frontrunner, former Gov. Mike Rounds. But the assumption made by the Weiland camp as of last spring that Pressler would hurt Rounds has proven only partially true. Pressler seems to be taking as many votes away from Weiland as from Rounds. That statement is based on what we’re hearing and seeing from campaign polls and from the independent survey conducted in early September for the Aberdeen American News, KSFY TV and KOTA TV.

Where the Senate race might be headed is a repeat of the 2002 Republican primary for governor. Rounds won after the two frontrunners, then-Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby, stalled in the polls. Rounds smiled all the way to victory as he picked up many of the undecided voters who didn’t the like negativity of Barnett and Kirby toward each other.

Rounds and Weiland have run TV ads lately on the EB-5 matter. Neither of their ads is totally accurate. Rounds’ ad is the bigger dodge. EB-5 was indeed his program. His Cabinet pursued expansions of it hard from the federal agency that oversees it. His Cabinet secretary Richard Benda signed the contract in 2009 privatizing EB-5 administration, with state government to receiving percentages of the fees paid by foreign investors to the private company run by Joop Bollen of Aberdeen.

As I’ve noted in previous posts about the recent independent poll, there weren’t enough undecided voters left for Weiland or Pressler to catch Rounds. Any change in the ranking will have to result from voters leaving one candidate in favor of another. The theory of late among some Democrats is that Pressler was brought into the race by the Rounds camp as a buffer against Weiland. That would make for quite an interesting story if true. It also would make for brilliant strategy if it works.

It also might be sour grapes among Democratic insiders who can’t fathom that Pressler might actually be the right fit for the times, with independent voter registration so strong in recent years. Rounds and Weiland have to fight on two fronts — against each other and against Pressler — while Pressler can run against the status quo of the two-party system.

This could finish as the most fascinating election for major office in South Dakota’s history.

Why Basin is troubled by EPA on clean air revision

Came across this nugget in the latest issue of Basin Today, the magazine for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which is the source of much of the electricity that flows to rural South Dakota and rural customers throughout a nine-state region. Basin’s CEO and general manager Paul Sukut used his column in the September-October issue to discuss Basin’s position regarding proposed clean-air regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Basin burns a lot of coal to make electricity and EPA’s proposal would severely affect Basin as a result. This is the paragraph from the Sukut column that caught my eye and deserves to be shared so that people on all sides of this issue might better understand the box that many electricity producers are in:

“As cooperatives, we’re in a unique situation in that the bulk of our baseload generation was built in the early 1980s when we were under the Fuel Usage Act of 1978, which prohibited the building of generation facilities fueled by natural gas. Because of this law, coal was our only viable choice. We designed and built our power plants to operate at maximum efficiency. However, as technology advances, there may be opportunities to improve generating efficiency, but current New Source Review (NSR) rules don’t allow projects that result in higher levels of efficiency. We’d like to see EPA ensure that energy efficiency improvements approved by a state plan do not trigger NSR.”

Basin followed the federal rules and built coal rather than gas. Nearly 40 years later, proposed new federal rules aim to shut down coal while pushing utilities to now look at gas and renewables. That is the dilemma.

Republican candidates benefit from Democrats

This is intriguing. Republican candidates for the Big Three offices — governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House — are holding a bigger share of support from their party’s members, than the Democratic candidates are from their members, according to the SurveyUSA polling results released this week.

The poll, performed for the Aberdeen American News, KOTA TV and KSFY TV, was the first independent look at where the candidates stood among the likely voters in South Dakota two months before the Nov. 4 elections.

The telephone poll depends on people saying whether they are likely to vote. And it depends on people self-identifying their party registration. The poll wound up with a sample split 50 percent for Republicans, 33 percent for Democrats and 16 percent for independents.

And with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in the latest monthly totals 238,791 to 175,178, and independents as the third major group at 99,509, it’s no wonder that Republican candidates were the frontrunners in the poll.

But the loose bolt for the Democrats was the weaker support they had among their own side.

For governor, Republican incumbent Dennis Daugaard had 78 percent of the Republicans and 23 percent of the Democrats, while Democratic state Rep. Susan Wismer had 65 percent of the Democrats and 13 percent of the Republicans. The third candidate, independent Mike Myers, had 6 percent of Republicans and 5 percent of Democrats.

For U.S. Senate, Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds had 61 percent of the Republicans and 10 percent of the Democrats, while Democratic candidate Rick Weiland had 56 percent of the Democrats and 11 percent of the Republicans.

There are two other candidates, both former Republicans running this time as independents for U.S. Senate. One is former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler who had 21 percent of the Republicans — and 29 percent of the Democrats. The other is former legislator Gordon Howie, who had 4 percent of the Republicans and 1 percent of the Democrats.

Only 3 percent of the Republicans and 4 percent of the Democrats were undecided in the Senate contest.

For U.S. House, Republican incumbent Kristi Noem had 83 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of the Democrats, while Democratic challenger Corinna Robinson had 78 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of the Republicans.

In the contests for governor and U.S. House, the Republican candidate has a larger share of the Democratic vote than the Democratic candidate has of the Republican vote. In the U.S. Senate contest, it’s essentially a draw with Weiland slightly better — but with Pressler the wild card as the former Republican drew more Democratic support than Republican.

So Republicans are ahead or tied on the crossovers as well as holding their own party’s voters.

Where are the independents? In two of the contests, they are foremost for Republicans.

For governor, they are 41 percent for Daugaard, 36 percent for Wismer and 8 percent for Myers, with 15 percent undecided.

For U.S. Senate, they are 34 percent for Rounds, 24 percent for Weiland, 31 percent for Pressler and 1 percent for Howie, with 10 percent undecided.

For U.S. House, they are 41 percent for Noem, 44 percent for Robinson and 16 percent undecided.

Overall, the survey indicates Republicans lead all three contests by fair to big margins, with undecideds all in the single digits and already pretty small to play much of a role in the remaining seven weeks.

In the governor’s race, Daugaard was at 54 percent, Wismer 34 percent, Myers 6 percent and 7 percent undecided.

In the U.S. Senate race, Rounds was at 39 percent, Weiland 28 percent, Pressler 25 percent, Howie 3 percent and undecided 5 percent.

In the U.S. House race, Noem was at 53 percent, Robinson 40 percent and undecided 6 percent.

The strangest thing of all? Rick Weiland has worked the hardest among the three Democratic candidates and has spent the most money on advertising — and he’s faring the worst. But Susan Wismer and Corinna Robinson don’t have to contend in their races with Larry Pressler, who has certainly turned the U.S. Senate contest into a three-way race.

Our next U.S. senator: Mr. Plurality

The trouble with having just one poll is you don’t know the trends. And when the poll is taken two months before Election Day, there is a lot of time for things to change. But one good poll is much, much better than none. When it comes to former Gov. Mike Rounds, the small uncertainty he faces in his Republican candidacy for the U.S. Senate is not so much whether he can win — but whether he can avoid losing.

The SurveyUSA polling conducted Sept. 3-7 for the Aberdeen American News, KSFY TV and KOTA TV would seem to put Rounds in a very strong position two months before the election. Those results indicate that, if he holds onto his share of voters, the other three candidates have only a small chance to overtake him.

Rounds had 39 percent, followed by Democratic candidate Rick Weiland at 28 percent and former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, now an independent candidate, at 25 percent. The remainders were “undecided” at 5 percent and former Republican legislator Gordon Howie, now an independent candidate, at 3 percent.

The undecideds are such a small piece of the pie, at least in the Survey USA results, that it’s risky to make too many guesses about where they might flow. The undecideds tended to be young — 18 to 49 years old — and Rounds did best among those age groups overall. They tended to be independents and Rounds did better than the three others among independents. They tended to have a high school education rather than something higher, and Rounds was best of the four among that subset, doing slightly better than Pressler. They also tended to be in the lowest of three income categories, at less than $40,000, and Rounds and Weiland tied among that group overall with 30 percent apiece.

The core constituency for Rounds, based on the survey, seems to Republicans of course and those with incomes above $80,000. He had 61 percent of the Republicans, with Pressler next at 21 percent. He had 34 percent of independents, with Pressler next at 31 percent.

The surprising soft spot for Rounds was among people age 50 and older. He led with 37 percent, followed by Weiland at 33 and Pressler at 25.

It would be surprising if any of the four candidates won with an outright majority of 50 percent. The best positioned to do that remains Mike Rounds. Instead our state’s next U.S. senator likely will win with a plurality under 50 percent. The best positioned to do that remains Mike Rounds. Right now Rick Weiland and Larry Pressler together are more popular than Rounds. But Rounds is more popular than either of them alone. None of the four can leave the ballot at this point. Absentee voting starts in a week.

Weiland and Pressler can chop away at Rounds’ support for the next seven weeks, but they would need to get Rounds down to about 30 percent for either Weiland or Pressler to have a real chance of overtaking him. Even if Rounds loses that much support, there’s no guarantee that enough of those voters would flow strongly to just one of the other candidates. For Rounds to lose would take a cataclysmic political event in the next five to six weeks.

On the other hand there was Jesse Ventura. Running on the Reform Party ticket, he was elected as governor of Minnesota in 1998. Ventura received 37 percent, followed by Republican Norm Coleman at 34 and DFL candidate Hubert Humphrey III at 28. In South Dakota this year, neither Rick Weiland nor Larry Pressler has shown himself to be a Jesse Ventura.


Legislators travel out of state to meetings

Official travel by South Dakota legislators to meetings and conferences elsewhere in the nation isn’t new. Since the 2014 session ended, approximately two dozen lawmakers have submitted vouchers so far for their trips this year.

Rep. James Bolin, R-Canton: $532.20 to attend a Council of State Government leadership training; $467.90 to attend the International Legislators Forum; and $1,043.01 to attend the Midwestern Legislative Conference.

Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford: $1,446.02 to represent South Dakota at the May meeting of the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board; and $1,478.30 to attend the spring meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea: $748.70 to attend the Mount Vernon Assembly.

Rep. Jim Stalzer, R-Sioux Falls: $713.80 to attend the Mount Vernon Assembly; and $552.25 to attend an oil and gas conference.

Rep. Paula Hawks, D-Hartford: $761.99 to attend the Council of State Governments national task force on workforce development and education.

Rep. Kathy Tyler, D-Big Stone City: $420.34 to attend the International Legislators Forum.

Rep. Roger Solum, R-Watertown: $363.66 to attend the International Legislators Forum; and $1,202.69 to attend the Midwestern Legislators Forum.

Rep. Scott Parsley, D-Madison: $421.65 to attend the International Legislators Forum.

Sen Chuck Welke, D-Warner: $322.49 to attend the International Legislators Forum.

Rep. Mary Duvall, R-Pierre: $516 to attend the International Legislators Forum.

Rep. Susan Wismer, D-Britton: $252.51 to attend the International Legislators Forum.

Rep. Spencer Hawley, D-Brookings: $399.55 to attend the International Legislators Forum.

Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City: $2,500 to attend the Uniform Law Commission annual meeting; and $1,839.09 to attend the American Legislative Exchange Council annual meeting.

Rep. Marc Feinstein, D-Sioux Falls: $2,500 to attend the Uniform Law Commission annual meeting.

Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City: $1,877.39 to attend the Uniform Law Commission annual meeting.

Rep. Ray Ring, D-Vermillion: $852.34 to attend the Midwestern Legislative Conference meeting.

Rep. Kristin Conzet, R-Rapid City: $1,399.75 to attend the Midwestern Legislative Conference meeting.

Rep. Fred Romkema, R-Spearfish: $1,365.60 to attend the Midwestern Legislative Conference meeting.

Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton: $1,020.42 to attend the Midwestern Legislative Conference meeting.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City: $1,465.30 to attend the Midwestern Legislative Conference meeting.

Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell: $1,098.48 to attend the Midwestern Legislative Conference meeting.

Sen. David Omdahl, R-Sioux Falls: $256.62 to attend an oil and gas conference.

Rep. Jenna Haggar, R-Sioux Falls: $2,036.85 to attend the American Legislative Exchange Council annual meeting.

Sen. Jeff Monroe, R-Pierre: $2,104.47 to attend the American Legislative Exchange Council annual meeting.

Rep. Manny Steele, R-Sioux Falls: $1,727.76 to attend the American Legislative Exchange Council annual meeting.