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.

Lottery budget request is ‘hold steady’

The South Dakota Lottery Commission meets Thursday, Sept. 4, at the Capitol and one of the agenda items is consideration of the fiscal 2016 budget request. The proposal from the lottery’s staff is zero change for ’16 from the approved fiscal 2015 budget that began July 1, 2014.

You can look it over here at about page 25 in the meeting packet. Overall the request is $40,855,689.

The 2015 video-lottery budget is $2,584,434. That was an increase of about $26,000 over the 2014 budget. The lottery’s actual spending for video lottery in fiscal 2014 came in nearly $651,000 below budget.

The on-line and instant ticket section of the budget came in over budget in 2014 by about $2.8 million. Prize expenses ran more than $3 million above expectations for ’14. After the offset by the savings on the video-lottery side, the 2014 spending exceeded budget by $2,104,491.

Daughters of the Grasslands: A Memoir

If you enjoy stories about the way South Dakota was not so long ago, you very well might enjoy this new book by Mary Woster Haug. She is one of the Woster family of writers who grew up in the Chamberlain area. She taught English for 30 years at South Dakota State University and still makes her home there with her husband, Ken. I’ve saved the next sentence until now so that it doesn’t throw off some potential readers and doesn’t unfairly attract some other potential readers: This book is in many ways the story of a young woman taking a feminist track in the 1960s from the farm and from the town home into the world of professional career woman pulling double duty as wife and mother. Today we take women for granted in the workforce through the highest levels — one of the financial supporters of Mary Alice’s book was former SDSU president Peggy Elliot Miller — but the Woster kids’ mom, Marie, seemed at peace in raising her children and running the house for Henry, her husband and the kids’ dad. The book very much is about the relationship between Mary and Marie. The author takes a somewhat unusual route, using episodes from time spent in South Korea to trigger perspectives about South Dakota and her family. Mary Alice edited a semi-memoir some 25 years ago, The Woster Brothers’ Brand, a collection of columns written for various publications by brothers Jim, Terry and Kevin. Mary Alice reaches deep personal places in her memoir. Her book seems simple until you’re done and think about everywhere she’s touched along the way. Marie and Henry should be proud. And who knew a piano could be so important?

Don’t forget the State Fair

Without a lot of fanfare the South Dakota State Fair has made its way back to an enjoyable event. Twenty years ago it struggled. The 1994 re-re-re-election of Bill Janklow to his third term as governor helped the turnaround. The fair still struggled despite the efforts of Janklow, then-Secretary of Agriculture Larry Gabriel, then-Gov. Mike Rounds and then-manager Susan Hayward who began in 2003, but they put a new emphasis on improving the fairgrounds, rebuilding facilities, attracting donations and making the grounds a year-round destination for other events. Under Rounds and then-Secretary of Agriculture Bill Even, the next step came in 2008 with the appointment of Jerome Hertel as the fair’s manager. Hertel grew up across the street from the Turner County fairgrounds and worked there. Before taking the state job in Huron, he spent eight years at the Sioux Empire Fair in Sioux Falls. In the past six years there has been strong growth in fundraising for improvements. The latest example: An announcement is set for Sunday regarding Dakota Turkey Growers’ donation to the new Nordby 4-H exposition center. The 2014 State Fair runs through Monday.

I enjoyed three to four hours there Friday afternoon and evening. Standard price for fried cheese curds appears to be $6 and a “pounder” aka 16-ounce can of good cold American beer cost $4. I was fairly successful at ducking most of the politicians and had a couple of good social conversations; I learned that if your wife is with you, there isn’t much talk about “issues.” We somehow lucked into one of the best parking places and the fellow running the lot didn’t stick around to collect the $5. I looked for him when we parked and I looked again when we left. If I see him next time, I’ll pay him $10. It rained, hard, for a while, and we ducked under the porch at the Dakotaland Museum, and the time was truly relaxing. The museum rightly lays claim to Hubert H. Humphrey and Gladys Pyle as political figures from Huron. Someone really, really needs to do a strong biography about Gladys Pyle and her parents and their roles in changing South Dakota politics, including the drive to grant women the right to vote, and about how the Republican nomination for governor was taken from Pyle at the party’s state convention. But I digress… If you haven’t been to the State Fair this year, or for a few years, or ever, get there. It’s $5 to get in, and I have to tell you, the horticulture building has some amazing vegetables and flowers and fruits to see. We didn’t get to the pigs, unfortunately, and I lost the vote on touring the rabbits and chickens. The sheep looked good and the cattle too. Did I mention fried cheese curds are $6?

Redfield center’s leader is retiring

Dr. Ted Williams, who’s been in various roles at the South Dakota Development Center at Redfield since 1976, is winding up his career there. Williams officially retires Monday, Sept. 8, from his position as director. The assistant director for the past eight years, Jan Banghart, moves to director. Williams, who holds a doctorate degree in school psychology, has been director since 2001. A special day in Williams’ honor is planned for Friday, Sept. 5.

PUC dealing with Madison grain dealer

A grain dealer in Madison faces a financial penalty from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.

American Edge Grain, doing business as Madison Bin City, has reached agreement with PUC staff to pay a $1,600 civil fine. The company failed to renew its registration July 1 but subsequently operated as a grain dealer.

The PUC staff learned during the investigation that AEG was in a negative financial position in December 2013 but didn’t report it to the PUC. State regulation requires that those situations must be reported. The agreement proposed between PUC and AEG describes that failure as “not willful.”

The three elected PUC members will consider the proposed deal at their meeting Tuesday afternoon at the state Capitol. The meeting starts at 1:30 p.m. CDT in room 414.

High School Activities Association directors meet this week

It’s that time again! The board of directors for the South Dakota High School Activities Association meets Wednesday and Thursday in Pierre. To see the agenda for the regular business meeting and for the planning meeting, as well as the link for the live webcast while the meetings are under way, go here to the South Dakota High School Activities Association website. There isn’t any detail other than “Strategic Planning” on the agenda for the Wednesday session that starts at 10 a.m. CDT. But there is a lot of detail on the agenda for the regular business meeting Thursday that starts at 8:30 a.m. Scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday is what promises to be an important presentation on the Lawrence & Schiller survey of attitudes about high school sports including preferences for tournament sites. The board has many other big decisions Thursday including setting football enrollment parameters, approving the SDHSAA Foundation’s new board, appointing members to the new tournament-site selection committee, considering constitutional changes for 2015-2016, setting ticket prices for wrestling and basketball state-level events, relocating the 2014 Class B volleyball state tournament to Aberdeen because of renovations under way at the Corn Palace in Mitchell and revisiting the broad topic of coaches’ education.

The directors are Todd Trask of Wall; Sandy Klatt of Brandon Valley; Rick Weber of Flandreau; Linda Whitney of Sanborn Central; Roger Bordeaux of Todd County; Jason Uttermark of Aberdeen; and Steve Morford of Spearfish.


Stuck in the middle

This is what happened to a truck that went around the barricade east of Howes on SD 34, according to South Dakota DOT. Here’s an excerpt from a DOT news release issued minutes ago:

Officials say motorists have been moving barricades and driving through the construction zone. Over the weekend, a semi-truck got stuck in the mud after heavy rains had moved through the area.

“The road is closed for a reason,” says Dean VanDeWiele, Pierre area engineer. “It is extremely dangerous to drive around barricades onto a closed road because even though it appears to have a drivable surface it is not in a condition to safely carry highway traffic. We understand the detour provided is an inconvenience, but is a matter of public safety to keep travelers out of the work zone.”

When motorists drive through an area that has been graded, the surface gets damaged and delays the repairs being made to the roadway.

“The contractor is working hard to get the roadway open as quickly as possible and we need the public’s cooperation,” says VanDeWiele.

Tampering with signs, barricades or other traffic control devices is in violation of SDCL 31-28-23, which is a Class 1 misdemeanor. In addition, motorists who drive around barricades are in violation of SDCL 32-28-10, a Class 2 misdemeanor.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol is monitoring the area and issuing tickets to motorists.

Same sex marriage and South Dakota

I am looking forward to the next meeting of the South Dakota Retirement System trustees set for Thursday, Sept. 4. The trustees will discuss their legislative package for the 2015 session, but perhaps the most interesting presentation will come from SDRS lawyer Jacque Storm. She will brief the board on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a section of  the federal Defense of Marriage Act in a 2013 decision known as Windsor. SDRS has members throughout the nation who at one time worked in a state, county, municipal, school or other job for a public entity that is a member of SDRS, while South Dakota’s state constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The chapters of South Dakota legal code that deal with marriage can be found at 25-1 and 25-2 and they don’t seem to leave any room that marriage is anything other than between a she and a he. Whether SDRS has any policies or rules it would need to change to accommodate members in other states, and whether the Legislature would need to change the definitions to accommodate SDRS are two sets of questions we probably will be discussing in South Dakota in the months ahead.

The persistence of Rep. Wismer and the brilliant move by Sen. Tidemann

Yes, Rep. Susan Wismer can claim victory. But Sen. Larry Tidemann played it smart today. Wismer, the Democratic nominee for governor, was blocked July 29 by the Republicans on the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee when she made a motion to subpoena Joop Bollen of Aberdeen to testify about his role in the EB-5 immigrant-investor visa program in South Dakota. Tidemann, R-Brookings, is the committee chairman. He declared today that he’s inviting Bollen to testify at GOAC’s next meeting scheduled for Sept. 24. Republicans took some tough hits on editorial pages for their treatment of Wismer, so the Tidemann decision today takes some of the steam out of the Democrats’ complaints claiming an EB-5 cover-up by Republicans. If Bollen doesn’t show on Sept. 24, the GOAC members can decide how to proceed next. But here’s the smartest piece of Tidemann’s move. He’s essentially run an entire month off the calendar while South Dakota waits for Bollen to show or not. Why is the calendar important? That takes Republicans four weeks deeper into their election campaigns. if Bollen doesn’t meet with the committee, there are only six weeks left until the Nov. 4 elections. Wismer still wants Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Republican U.S. Senate nominee and former Gov. Mike Rounds, and Aberdeen lawyer Jeff Sveen to testify to GOAC about their involvement and their knowledge regarding EB-5. Tidemann is sidestepping that challenge by saying he’ll ask Daugaard and Rounds to answer written questions. EB-5 was a Rounds administration program. Daugaard’s administration has shelved it in the wake of revelations that grant money was misdirected at the end of 2010 in the Richard Benda matter. The announcement today that Rapid City lawyer Pat Duffy would be assisting the Democratic candidates in their pursuit of more information about EB-5 shows this could be the main topic for Democrats in their campaigns this fall.