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.

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.”


Another fight over patient choice of doctors

The Legislature traditionally has been a friendly place for South Dakota’s major health care systems. Specialty hospitals and independent doctors couldn’t get their “any willing provider” provision through the Legislature two years ago; it sought to guarantee patients could choose their medical providers in spite of what their insurance providers and the major hospital systems preferred. However, the voting public approved the patient-choice provision in the 2014 general election.

Now comes legislation that attempts to either adjust or poke a hole — the sides disagree, of course — in the 2014 initiative. The sides lay out their basic arguments today in the House Commerce and Energy Committee. Only initial testimony will be taken on HB 1067, whose prime sponsor is Rep. Tim Rounds, R-Pierre. He is the committee’s chairman. The committee will hold a special meeting Feb. 10 in the later afternoon to continue its deliberations, starting at 3:45 p.m. CT or, if the House hasn’t completed its debate calendar by then, the meeting would start 15 minutes after the House adjourns for the day.

The bill seeks two changes.

It would create a definition: “Panel of providers,” a list of all health care providers under contract with a health insurer for inclusion in one or more of the health insurer’s health benefit plans.”

And it would add a requirement: “All health insurers shall offer for sale at least one health benefit plan approved by the division that contains all of the health care providers which are in its panel of providers. However, nothing in this chapter limits a consumer’s ability to purchase, or a health insurer’s ability to offer for sale, health benefit plans that contain less than all of the health care providers which are in a health insurer’s panel of providers.”

Our nation, and the next president

The Iowa presidential caucuses last night tell us this morning we live in a fascinating time in our nation. The tight finish between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tells us the Democratic nominee will be either 68 or 74; think about what it means to be age 70 to 80 and running our nation, three to six years into the future. On the Republican side, three-quarters of caucus participants last night wanted someone new rather than tested in government and politics. Donald Trump, who finished second, is 69. Ted Cruz, who placed first, is 45. Marco Rubio, in third less than five percentage points behind Cruz, is 44. Add Cruz and Rubio together and the majority of Iowa Republican participants wanted someone new, in his 40s. That doesn’t seem promising for Trump.

New Hampshire’s primaries next week could bring us someone else to consider, such as John Kasich, who is 63 and who is betting it all on a strong finish among Republicans there. The virtual tie between Clinton and Sanders in Iowa isn’t a surprise; months ago Democratic voters knew whether they liked her or preferred a “someone else” candidate, and Sanders filled that role. The same could very well happen come November if she is the Democratic nominee, with a belligerent Republican such as Trump or Cruz becoming the “someone else” opponent. Rubio, from Florida, or Kasich, from Ohio, would seem to give Republicans an edge toward winning one of those two key states in the Electoral College math.

Should Sanders become the Democratic nominee, the question for November becomes whether voters want a revolution that Republicans in Congress would never allow — and a veto pen by Sanders that Republicans in Congress couldn’t overcome. Republicans have to be quietly asking themselves whether Cruz, Trump or Rubio is the man who can deliver their party the total control of the legislative process that winning the White House would bring.

The last thing Republicans want is four or eight more years of the stalemate they now face with Democratic President Barack Obama; the last thing Democrats want is four to eight years of Republican dominance in Congress and the White House, and the unraveling of the changes made under Obama. The insults and the attacks we’ve seen so far will worsen in the next nine months until we know on a late Tuesday night in November which side, and which nominee, was tougher.

G-Mark crushes it

State Rep. George Mark Mickelson posted an ending balance of $558,641.79 for his political action committee through the end of 2015.

Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, filed his report Monday afternoon. He reported the PAC, which he formed Aug. 27, 2015, received $583,244.05 in income and spent $24,602.26.

Mickelson is preparing to be a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018. His father, George S. Mickelson, and his grandfather George T. Mickelson were governors of South Dakota.

Mickelson reported income that included small non-itemized contributions of $4,023, itemized contributions from individuals totaling $515,269.99, donations from other political organizations totaling $63,150 and a donation from another candidate’s committee of $801.06.

The 2015 campaign-finance report for his legislative campaign committee wasn’t immediately available Monday afternoon. He is running for re-election to a seat from District 13 in the state House of Representatives.

Mickelson’s PAC filing showed multiple contributions of $10,000. Among the businesses that gave the maximum amount were Bell Inc., Gil Haugan Construction and ethanol company POET, all of Sioux Falls.

Individuals giving $10,000 included Emilia Buchanan of Mill Valley, CA; Tad Buchanan of Mill Valley, CA; Harry Christianson of Rapid City; Dana Dykehouse of Sioux Falls; George Lund of Scottsdale, AZ; the legislator’s mother, Linda Mickelson Graham of Sioux Falls; Larry Ness of Yankton; Elaine Pacquin of Sioux Falls; Thomas Reaves of Sioux Falls; Brooke Schieffer of Sioux Falls; and Kevin Schieffer of Sioux Falls.

The PAC reported dozens of contributions ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 and many smaller donations as well.

Mickelson raised more in the final five months of 2015 than another leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2018, state Attorney General Marty Jackley, reported in his PAC and his attorney general campaign account as of the end of 2015. (See post from earlier today on Jackley below.)