Author Archives: Bob Mercer

About Bob Mercer

Bob Mercer is a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News and four other separately owned newspapers: the Black Hills Pioneer, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Mitchell Daily Republic and the Watertown Public Opinion. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish and Pierre papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the five papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

Elder-abuse task force now up to 17

The state House of Representatives faces a vote today on Sen. David Novstrup’s proposal to establish a task force on elder-abuse issues for South Dakota. The House State Affairs Committee modified the version of the bill that was approved by the Senate, so that the task force would now have 17 members including two to come from the banking sector. Altogether state Supreme Court Chief Justice would get seven of the appointments including the two banking personnel. The House committee amendment adding the bankers means the legislation would need to return to the Senate for another vote, assuming House members keep the bill as amended by their side’s committee.

The House committee put the measure, SB 168, on the House consent calendar, meaning there won’t be debate (but there can be questions). A House member could ask for the bill to be removed from consent and it would then be placed on the debate calendar for a later date. Presuming the House approves it, the House version would then be returned to the Senate for a decision whether to concur with the House amendment or send it to a conference committee for negotiation. The task force is in response to Chief Justice Gilbertson’s offer in his State of the Judiciary message to the Legislature on Jan. 14 that he continued to be ready to work on the topic of elder abuse.

Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, has two bills up in the House today. His other is the youth minimum-wage legislation, SB 177, that would set a state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour for workers younger than 18. The Senate previously passed the youth minimum wage along party lines, with Republicans for it and Democrats against it. South Dakota currently has a statewide minimum wage for all workers that rose to $8.50 on Jan. 1 after voters approved the increase in the Nov. 4 statewide election. The voters also approved an automatic inflation adjustment annually. The youth wage proposal doesn’t contain an inflation adjustment mechanism.

S.D. Senate steers South Dakota clear of genocide argument

Led by comments from Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, state senators voted 30-4 Tuesday to table — that is, kill without further debate — a resolution recognizing the killings 100 years ago in Anatolia.

Brown said it’s the wrong time to bring up the matter as the United States and other nations look for Turkey’s help in battling ISIS in Iraq and neighboring lands.

The resolution, HCR 1009, came out of the House where it was approved 57-17. The resolution’s prime sponsor is Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls. The resolution states that 1.5 million people of Armenian heritage and hundreds of thousands of Greek and Assyrian heritage were killed by the Ottoman Turks a century ago.

The resolution also stated “that the Legislature deplores the persistent, ongoing efforts by any person, in this country or abroad, to deny the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide” and “the Legislature urges the Republic of Turkey to acknowledge the facts of the Armenian Genocide and to work toward a just resolution”.

In other international news from the Legislature, the House of Representatives voted 67-0 Tuesday for a resolution denouncing and condemning anti-Semitism in various European and Middle Eastern nations and invited French Jews and Jewish people generally to move to South Dakota. SCR 8, whose prime sponsor is Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, won Senate approval 34-0 last week.

State employees might see larger reimbursements

The state Board of Finance holds a public hearing March 17 on increasing various reimbursement rates for travel expenses incurred by state government employees.

Use of a private vehicle when there isn’t a state vehicle available would be billed at 42 cents per mile from the current 37 cents. Use of a private vehicle when a state vehicle could be used would be paid at 23 cents per mile, up from the current 20 cents.

Lodging and meals would be paid at higher rates as well.

For out of country trips, the daily lodging amount would increase to $175 from the current $150 per day. Meals allowances would increase to $10 for breakfast, $21 for lunch and $29 for dinner; they currently are $7, $18 and $25 for out of country trips.

For out of state trips, the daily lodging maximum woud increase to $175 from the present $150. Meals would increase to $10 for breakfast, $14 for lunch and $21 for dinner. Those currently are $8, $11 and $17.

In-state lodging would remain at $55 per night for Sept. 1 check-in through June 1 check-out and $70 per night during the three summer months of June, July and August. But in-state meal allowances will increase to $6 for breakfast, $11 for lunch and $15 for dinner, up to a maximum of $32 per day. Those currently are $5, $9, $12 and $26.

Uniformed Highway Patrol officers while assigned to field duties can receive a flat daily meal allowance of $14. It currently is $12.

There are various changes proposed for meals and lodging for employees with special needs, for private airplane use and for private trailer house use.

The hearing will be at 2 p.m. CST at the Capitol in the governor’s large conference room on the second floor.

Board of Psychology Examiners gets new members

The governor appointed Robert Overturf of Pierre and Alice Bruce of Spearfish to the state Board of Psychology Examiners effective immediately. They succeed the board’s two lay members, Daniel Green of Spearfish and Lorin Pankratz of Sioux Falls. The new terms for Overturf and Bruce run until Oct. 30, 2017.

The governor also reappointed three members of the state Board of Addiction and Prevention Professionals to new terms. They are Mark Bontreger of Watertown, Amy Hartman of Sioux Falls and Barbara Ohme of Sioux Falls. Their new terms run until Oct. 30, 2017.

Daugaard: ‘Start recruiting today’

Gov. Dennis Daugaard told Republican county leaders at their statewide meeting Saturday that candidate recruiting can start immediately for 31 of the 105 seats in the Legislature. Those are seats that Democrats currently hold or have Republicans who can’t seek re-election to the seats in 2016 because they are term-limited. He also suggested that the 74 other Republicans should be asked whether they plan to run again in 2016 so there can be a head-start on finding new Republican candidates to run if they aren’t.

“We are so much more organized, and it makes us strong,” Daugaard said. He looked forward to Republicans winning the big prize of U.S. president in 2016. “Let’s get our presidential candidate in the White House. That’s what we really, really need in this country,” he said.

For those tracking such things, a “seed poll” was taken among the attendees Saturday at the Republicans’ meeting at the Casey Tibbs rodeo center in Fort Pierre. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker finished on top.

With Daugaard’s endorsement, Pam Roberts of Pierre was selected to succeed Craig Lawrence of Sioux Falls as state chairman. Drake Olson of Sioux Falls was chosen vice-chairman. Lawrence and former state Rep. Kim Vanneman of Ideal officially served as co-chairmen the past two years. Pierre lawyer Justin Bell was re-elected as treasurer. The new secretary is Kristi Wagner of Whitewood, succeeding lawyer Sara Frankenstein of Rapid City. None of the four candidates was opposed.

Daugaard spoke highly of Lawrence’s work the past two years. Lawrence praised Bell’s efforts handling the party’s finances.

Does it matter whether new city-penny passes?

There was mild surprise when the state Senate approved SB 135 on Feb. 9 by a 19-14 vote. The Daugaard administration opposes allowing cities to add another 1 percent of municipal sales tax. The 19-14 vote is important because a two-thirds majority of 24 would be necessary in the Senate to override a veto. Therefore the question arises: Does it matter whether the state House of Representatives approves the bill?

The proposal from the South Dakota Municipal League would allow a city commission or council to approve an ordinance adding the 1 percent tax for a specific purpose and for a specific time. The tax would have to be specifically extended by another ordinance for more time and that would be subject to public vote.

The only opponents to this bill, whose prime sponsor is Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, during the Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on Feb. 4 were the National Federation of Independent Business lobbyist Bob Riter of Pierre and the state Revenue Department’s No. 2 man, David Wiest. They’re up against every legislator whose mayor back home wants this additional 1 percent of taxing authority.  Sioux Falls, Brookings, Parker, Spearfish, Yankton, Keystone and Sturgis had people speak at the hearing. The committee vote that day was 6-2.

What happens to SB 135 in the House isn’t clear. Its lead House sponsor is a former mayor, Rep. Scott Munsterman, R-Brookings. The House speaker, Dean Wink, R-Howes, originally assigned the bill to the House Taxation Committee. Wink is a co-sponsor of the bill. The tax committee didn’t seem like the worst place for it to land, with plenty of co-sponsors on the panel, such as Mary Duvall, R-Pierre; Don Haggar, R-Sioux Falls; Patrick Kirschman, D-Sioux Falls; Nancy Rasmussen, R-Hurley; Tona Rozum, R-Mitchell; and Mark Willadsen, R-Sioux Falls. But on Wednesday, one day before the scheduled hearing in tax committee, House Republican leader Brian Gosch of Rapid City called on Speaker Wink to have the bill referred to the House State Affairs Committee instead.

Gosch, who didn’t sign onto the bill as a co-sponsor, is chairman of the state affairs committee. A similar move was made regarding the governor’s legislation for highway and bridge funding, transferring it from the House Transportation Committee to state affairs, where on the final day for possible action the governor’s bill was killed 13-0. The state affairs committee is also where Rep. Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, took control of a Democratic-only sponsored bill and turned it into his legislation allowing school districts to start levying a portion of capital outlay tax specifically to support technical institutes. So who knows whether something might be afoot on the city sales-tax bill.

The state affairs panel however does have plenty of the sales-tax bill’s co-sponsors among its members, including Munsterman; Haggar; House Democratic leader Spencer Hawley of Brookings; Kris Langer, R-Dell Rapids; Mike Stevens, R-Yankton; Mike Verchio, R-Hill City; and Wink. That’s a majority of seven on a 13-member committee, meaning it’s highly possible the bill wins a do-pass recommendation that sends it to the full House for debate.

So far the bill isn’t scheduled (at least not publicly) for its hearing yet. State affairs members had 24 bills requiring hearings as of Thursday evening. Those include the juvenile justice package in SB 73 and the Senate version of the highway and bridge funding package in SB 1. Including today’s meeting (Friday, Feb. 27), the House State Affairs Committee has four meeting days left, unless a special meeting is added.

As for how the Senate voted on SB 135, you can see that tally here.

Retaliators attack senators on gun bills

It takes a thick skin to vote against many of the pieces of gun-related legislation. Members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee are getting tested by personal and anonymous attacks after defeating two measures Wednesday. Perhaps this works in other state capitols, but it’s always proven counter-productive in South Dakota. Legislators tend to band together when they feel they are being attacked unfairly. Citizens likewise are starting to wonder why it seems there are so many “gun bills” in the 2015 legislative session.

There were nine bills introduced this year that deal in some fashion with concealed-carry regulations. Seven are dead, including the package brought by Rep. Jim Stalzer, R-Sioux Falls. One won approval and was signed into law by the governor. It is SB 12, which came from state Attorney General Marty Jackley. It allows a temporary permit for the spouse of active-duty military personnel in serving in South Dakota. The ninth bill, which is still alive, came from Rep. Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland. It is HB 1215, which provides for an enhanced permit for concealed-carry. Brunner’s bill was approved 67-0 in the House of Representatives and is up next in the Senate.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the actions being taken against some legislators, we’re working to track the flow of political money, including from outside South Dakota to activists in South Dakota, regarding this issue. We’ve already found unusual activity — money that wasn’t reported being sent into South Dakota, but was reported as being received in South Dakota. This might be merely a clerical error, or it could be something more. We’ll be back with more as it develops.

Cemetery law needs Legislature’s repairs — or repeal

State laws that don’t work, such as South Dakota’s current regulations of cemeteries, shouldn’t be ignored. But that’s what’s happened this legislative session with the death of HB 1157 from Rep. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen. He detailed the inadequacies of the current law during a Feb. 4 hearing. But the House Commerce and Energy Committee chaired by Rep. Tim Rounds, R-Pierre, didn’t see the level of need that Novstrup did. Some cemeteries have to file an annual report with the South Dakota secretary of state, but there’s no penalty if they don’t, and so some don’t; other cemeteries don’t have to file a report. The secretary of state’s office doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism. The purpose of the reports is to allow people to see the financial conditions of the cemetery. The simple solution would have been to impose the $25 daily fine that Novstrup sought and tell cemeteries in state law that the federal tax reports they file with the IRS could be copied to the secretary of state’s office and those could be placed on public file. Those reports for the non-profit cemeteries already are public documents if a person is diligent enough to pursue them from the federal government.

Novstrup wasn’t able to get his bill out of the House committee. The panel voted 7-4 against his bill initially and then killed it 8-3 on Feb. 20. Novstrup asked the full House of Representatives to support him on a smoke-out motion to force the committee to release the bill, but he didn’t get the required one-third of the 70 members to support him Wednesday. He was opposed by Rep. Michele Harrison, R-Mobridge. So now South Dakota still has a small mess. The 2014 changes made by the Legislature don’t accomplish what lawmakers thought they did, and those cemeteries that don’t want to comply with the law can continue to ignore it without penalty.

The truly strange piece of this? Last year, the bill brought by then-Sen. Novstrup and then-Rep. Charlie Hoffman, R-Eureka, passed without a dissenting vote in either chamber. This year, needing to fix the holes in that 2014 law, Novstrup couldn’t get his bill out of committee. The answer seems simple: Repair the problems that have been shown to exist, as Novstrup wants done; or repeal the law, as various cemetery business people have urged.

Meat grinding and the Legislature

Today — Wednesday, Feb. 25 — is crossover day in the Legislature. It’s the deadline for a chamber, whether the Senate or the House of Representatives, to finish dealing for the first time with all of the legislation that began in that chamber. The House has 16 bills on its debate calendar this afternoon. The Senate has 14. There is a relief mechanism, known as suspending the rules, that has often been used in the past to carry bills over for a day, or sometimes two. Rarely does a chamber work past 5 p.m. any more, except when dealing with state government’s budget at the very end of session. Crossover days in decades past however were often raucous. Legislators worked into the evening, taking a break for supper and then returning. Those night-time debates could be strange, with the level of strangeness directly proportional to how much was imbibed and by how many during the supper break. Our legislators increasingly have become less of working-hour imbibers, as has society generally, it seems. We also see less use of the 5-17 rule in the Legislature; this technique involved offering an amendment during a House or Senate debate, then another legislator would invoke rule 5-17 requiring a delay of one intervening day. The Legislature now cuts off use of 5-17 before crossover is reached; Friday of last week was the last day it could be used. Today will be a meat grinder with so many bills facing crossover deadline. But then crossover day always is.

Interveners changing in oil pipeline dockets

The state Public Utilities Commission meets Monday, March 2, and among the items on the agenda are two oil-pipeline permit dockets. Two interveners, the South Dakota Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, are dropping out of the permitting process for the TransCanada Keystone pipeline’s route through South Dakota. Meanwhile 13 more parties filed in time for the Feb. 13 deadline to intervene in the proposed Dakota Access pipeline’s route through South Dakota. The Keystone already is permitted; because TransCanada didn’t act on the permit for four years, the permit is up for certification that conditions haven’t changed since it was issued. Dakota Access is a new pipeline proposed from North Dakota to Illinois. The revised agenda for March 2 is available here; click on the docket numbers for all of the documents for each matter.