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.

State Supreme Court won’t reopen warrantless DUI cases

This seems like a major and far-reaching decision by the South Dakota Supreme Court issued this week. It is about South Dakota’s practice of drawing blood from drunk-driving suspects without their consent and without a warrant. The practice was founded on the principle in South Dakota case law that blood-alcohol content naturally dissipates and therefore evidence would be lost without taking the blood samples. However, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2013 in a case known as Missouri v. McNeely that the dissipation of blood-alcohol content doesn’t automatically mean law enforcement can draw blood without consent and without a warrant in all cases of suspected driving under the influence. This matter came to the South Dakota Supreme Court in an appeal filed by Donavan Craig Siers, who was arrested on suspicion of DUI in Minnehaha County in 2008. He refused to consent to a blood draw and he subsequently was placed in restraints so that his blood could be taken. The draw was performed without a warrant. He was found to have a BAC of .22 percent, more than double the DUI threshold in state law, and the BAC became the primary evidence against him. The state Supreme Court looked at two issues in his appeal.

The state’s five justices found that the McNeely decision “broke new ground” for South Dakota regarding warrantless drawing of blood in suspected drunk-driving cases. The justices stated that law enforcement can’t rely solely on the dissipation argument any longer.

The second issue considered by the justices was whether McNeely required South Dakota to apply the new rule retroactively. In considering that issue, the justices determined they need to apply a new test so they are consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court in another case known as Teague v. Lane. The South Dakota justices had been using what’s known as the Linkletter test on retroactivity; the U.S. Supreme Court replaced Linletter with Teague. In a previous decision the South Dakota justices declined to accept Teague. Now they have reversed that position and accept Teague because Linkletter was too subjective. Said the South Dakota court in its decision in the current case, “Teague stated that normally a new rule would not be retroactively applied once a defendant’s case had become final.” The justices added, “By applying the Teague test for retroactivity, this Court can better address concerns for finality, consistency, and uniformity—all by way of a simpler, more straightforward test. Moving forward, we therefore adopt the Teague rule.”

All of which led the state justices to decide the new McNeely standard regarding warrantless blood draws shouldn’t have retroactive application in South Dakota. Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote the court’s opinion which was unanimous. “The new rule announced in McNeely did not place any form of individual conduct beyond the power of the State to proscribe. Nor was it a new watershed rule of criminal procedure. Thus, we answer the retroactivity question the same under the new standard as we would have under the old and determine that McNeely should not be given retroactive effect,” the chief justice stated.

Go here if you want to read the South Dakota Supreme Court’s full opinion.

SDAHO hires interim director during search

The South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, whose members include 53 hospitals and 33 long-term care facilities, is proceeding on a national search for a new chief executive to succeed Dave Hewett. For the meantime SDAHO hired an interim president and CEO. She is Gretchen Dahlen of Verona, Wisconsin. She is a member of the national board of directors AARP and has served in a variety of executive and consultant roles for healthcare institutions. She most recently was with Mayo Clinic Health System as Chief Administrative Officer for Winneshiek Medical Center in Decorah, Iowa, according to the announcement from SDAHO; she will serve under a professional services contract through December or until a permanent CEO is recruited for SDAHO.

Two teacher-prep programs win re-approval

The state Board of Education gave approval Monday morning for continuation of the teaching programs and units at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and South Dakota State University at Brookings. The teaching programs undergo reviews every seven years. Both programs met the six sets of standards for initial teacher preparation and advanced preparation.

The Augustana review noted teaching candidates have limited opportunities to interact with higher education and P-12 school faculty from diverse populations. SDSU received a similar comment regarding limited diversity opportunities.

Two other areas for improvement were noted at SDSU. In the advanced preparation programs, SDSU didn’t demonstrate sufficient evidence that teaching candidates in the curriculum and instruction program demonstrate in-depth knowledge and expertise within their area of specialization. SDSU also was described as inconsistently applying field placement policies and teaching candidates have limited experiences with diverse P-12 students; this was for both initial and advanced preparation programs. SDSU will receive a second visit in 2019

Gaming Commission plans special meeting

The South Dakota Commission on Gaming has scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday, July 23, by telephone conference call to further consider matters involving Platinum Ventures LLC regarding the sale of the Four Aces Casino and Hampton Inn Hotel in Deadwood. Last month the commission called for an agreement that would dismiss the 15-day suspension of gambling licenses for Platinum Ventures in exchange for the company dismissing its appeal and paying a $25,000 penalty. This matter dates back to a decision by the commission in November to impose the 15-day suspension. The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. CDT and the public can hear the proceedings at the commission’s offices in Pierre and Deadwood.

You can listen to BOTH education meetings today

If you have Internet access, you can go here on the Legislature’s 2014 interim meetings page and click on the SDPB “Phoenix” icon to hear the proceedings of the Legislative Planning Committee that begin at 10 a.m. CDT. The agenda for the committee’s discussions of education policies is available at the same location by clicking on the date on the left side of the meetings listing page.

If you have a telephone, you can call into a toll-free line to listen to the state Board of Education meeting today. It starts at 9 a.m. CDT. Here are the department’s instructions to call in: Please dial 1-866-410-8397, then enter conference code 8381998525.

The Daugaard administration is quietly proceeding on an internal effort to put many meetings of state boards and commissions on the Internet similar to legislative proceedings. Many people in South Dakota who have interest in our state government’s operations look forward to those times ahead. It is another important step in bringing more transparency to state government.

How about those Twins — and who’s this Kennys Vargas?

Tampa Bay pulled ahead of Minnesota in the wins column with the Rays’ 6-2 victory on Friday night. The Rays’ Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria did the damage. Tampa Bay is now 45-53 this season while Minnesota is 44-51. My hopes that the Twins could finish this season at .500 appear to have been too optimistic. I’m not a Twins fan when it comes to Major League Baseball but the Twins are our nearest team and I’m a baseball fan. So I follow them through thick and thin. As a baseball fan I also appreciate the magazine Baseball America and recommend it, if you are a fan who likes to look into the possibilities the future might bring to your team. Baseball America follows college baseball, high school baseball and minor league baseball, all with an eye to what major league teams might become. Baseball America’s latest issue features its midseason report and still rates the Twins’ minor-league outfielder Byron Buxton at No. 1 and the Twins’ minor-league third baseman Miguel Sano at No. 9 among BA’s top 50 prospects. Perhaps just as noteworthy, three Twins’ minor-league pitchers also make the top 50 with right-hander Jose Berrios at No. 27, right-hander Kohl Stewart at No. 30 and right-hander Alex Meyer at No. 32.

Who knows if and when any of those five might be ready. Looking into the minor-league leaders, based on actual performance through the All-Star break last week, the Twins had two of the top 10 pitchers in the AAA-level International League. They are Kris Johnson and Trevor May at Rochester.  They had one of the top 10 pitchers in the AA-level Eastern League. He is Sean Gilmartin of New Britain. Unfortunately for the Twins they didn’t have a top-10 hitter in either of the two leagues. Three of their minor-league players were selected for the All-Star Futures Game. They are May, Berrios and the New Britain first baseman Kennys Vargas, who carried strong AA-level marks.

Baseball America follows minor-league signings closely and the Twins had one player among BA’s top 30 international high-school-age signings this summer (MLB has different rules for international prospects; rather than a regulated draft of high school seniors, junior college players and college juniors and seniors who are from the United States or Canada, it can be a cash free-for-all when international players reach age 16). The Twins signed a right-handed pitcher, Huascar Ynoa from Dominican Republic, whom BA ranked No. 16 among its top 30. His signing cost the Twins $800,000. The franchise that raked and raked and raked among the international signees was the New York Yankees. They took the Nos. 2, 6, 7, 9, 16, 18, 22, 23, 24 and 28 in Baseball America’s estimation. International signings don’t depend on teams’ win-loss records. Almost all of the top-30 international signees are from Dominican Republic or Venezuela; the other two nations making that list were Columbia (one) and South Korea (one).

Sano is from Dominican Republic. He currently is injured. Last year, at age 20, he played half of the season at AA. He posted a .236 average with 19 home runs in 276 plate appearances. Buxton was the Twins’ first-round draft pick in the 2012 draft (taken No. 2 overall in that draft out of high school in Georgia). This year the 20-year-old began at A-level Fort Myers where he hit .280 through 13 games. Sano had surgery on his right elbow. Buxton’s left wrist is hurt. Neither is expected to play at all the rest of this season.

Vargas, now 23, played the equivalents of one-third seasons from age 18 through age 21 as he gradually moved up the Twins’ minor-league ladder. Last year at Fort Myers Vargas knocked 19 homers with a .267 average in 520 plate appearances with 50 walks and 105 strikeouts. So far this year, at AA New Britain, Vargas has 15 home runs, a .287 batting average and a .360 on-base percentage, with 35 walks and 57 strikeouts, in 350 plate appearances. He seems to be the new man to watch on the Twins’ prospect list.

Joe Mauer, the Twins’ current first baseman in Minneapolis, is signed through 2018. Vargas could be up with the big league team in 2016 as a designated hitter and first baseman. While Mauer is batting at the lowest production of his major league career (.271 average and 2 homers), he hasn’t committed an error this season. Vargas has three errors at New Britain. We will watch and see.

Howie candidacy rises to second place — in signs

No one is close to former Gov. Mike Rounds in U.S. Senate campaign signs along South Dakota’s four-lane and two-lane highways throughout the state. But one of the Republican-turned-independent candidates is making a move.

I spotted approximately a half-dozen Gordon Howie signs along S.D. 34 and I-29 when I drove from Pierre to Colman to Sioux Falls and back on Tuesday. A few of the locations intrigued me because they suggest the breadth of Howie’s political connections.

I haven’t seen a road sign yet for Democratic nominee Rick Weiland or Republican-turned-independent and former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler.

The Republican primary turned into an important test run for the Rounds campaign. Now he’s out starting his “grassroots” tour. However, he has not yet taken up the guitar ala Rick Weiland.

The left hand and the right hand in K-12 ed

Baffle me, baffle me. How does the Legislature’s special planning committee, which has been assigned to study K-12 education during this year and next year, schedule its next meeting for the morning of Monday, July 21 — the same morning the state Board of Education is holding its regular meeting? Here is the agenda for each:

Planning committee — click here;

State board — click here (and here for the documents).

Governor appoints two new members to Capitol Complex Restoration and Beautification Commission

Sandra Zinter of Pierre and John Miller of Brookings are the new members of the state Capitol Complex Restoration and Beautification Commission. Miller, an author and retired historian from South Dakota State University, attended his first meeting today (Wednesday). Zinter, who retired in the past year as state commissioner of human resources, wasn’t able to attend. They replace the late John Day of Vermillion and retired Chief Justice Robert Miller, who resigned in May. The seven members present today re-elected Tim Engel of Pierre as chairman. The others are Pat Harding of Pierre, Carla Sahr of Pierre, Don Zeller of Pierre, Jim Hansen of Pierre and Laurie Gill, the mayor of Pierre and the state commissioner of human resources. The meeting was the panel’s first since August.

Where are the first BPE members? w/update

I can’t say for certain these are the original members appointed by Gov. Dick Kneip in August 1973 but they are the first members listed in the state’s Blue Book 1975 edition for the Board of Environmental Protection. I turned to the Blue Book in an effort to determine how long the last remaining original members, Dick Sweetman of Sioux Falls and Lee McCahren of Vermillion, had served before their retirements this summer. It was more than 40 years. The panel now is known as the state Board of Minerals and Environment. The others named in the 1975 Blue Book were:

Robert Williams of Rapid City;

Donald Farnsworth, Sr., of Carter;

Darles O. Erickson of Huron;

James Peterson of Revillo; and

Lawrence Piersol of Sioux Falls.

If it is the same person, Larry Piersol was serving the second of his two terms in the state House of Representatives at the time. He later was appointed as a federal district judge in Sioux Falls. I don’t know whether Bob Williams is the same person who served in the Legislature during the late 1970s and early 1980s from Brown County. Likewise I don’t know whether Jim Peterson is the same legislator who’s currently serving. UPDATE: Jim confirms this was him. All would have been the approximate ages to have been part of the young Democratic administration during Dick Kneip’s three terms as governor.

Please email me at if you have further information about any of the seven appointees. Or feel free to post comments directly on this blog. (Thanks to Bill Srtska and Jim Peterson for their additional information about this!)