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 Commission plans L&S meetings

Seldom does the South Dakota Lottery Commission hold a meeting anywhere but Pierre. The commission takes to the road come Dec. 10, however, to sit down in Sioux Falls with the lottery’s marketing contractor, Lawrence and Schiller.

Norm Lingle, the top administrator for the South Dakota Lottery, told commission members today (Tuesday) that rooms are on hold for them at the downtown Holiday Inn City Centre for the night of Dec. 9 and rooms can be arranged for them for the night of Dec. 10 as well.

Lingle said he didn’t want to “steal the thunder” but there seems to be big doings planned. Perhaps a new logo for the South Dakota Lottery? Perhaps preliminary results from marketing research?

Lingle also asked the commissioners to pencil in Jan. 7 as the date for the first quarterly meeting of 2016. It would be in Pierre. He indicated Lawrence and Schiller staff will have a major role in that meeting as well and will talk about the marketing plan for the rest of fiscal 2016.

Market research will be completed by that time, Lingle said. The research will be discussed on Dec. 10 and will be part of the L&S presentation on Jan. 7, Lingle said.

Opioid overdose rules hearing is Dec. 3

The Legislature unanimously approved a measure from state Attorney General Marty Jackley during the 2015 session that authorized first responders to possess and administer what are known as opioid antagonists that are used to counter overdoses. The first responders must have training with a licensed physician and the authorization is to cover three years before updated training is needed. The state Board of Medical and Osteopathic Examiners holds a public hearing Thursday, Dec. 3, in Sioux Falls at 9 a.m. (Here is the notice and here are the proposed rules.) Two of the Daugaard administration’s departments, Public Safety and Health, supported the legislation’s passage. This is a significant advancement for South Dakota.

‘Gray’ Thursday? ‘Black’ Friday? We shall do better

Never, ever thought “Black Friday” made sense. Sure, the volume of sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving might make the difference for a business finishing the year in the black with a profit or in the red with a loss. But the historical context for a “Black” day of the week is depressing, literally.

There was Black Monday in 1929 when the stock market crashed and, behold, there was Black Monday again in 1987 when the stock market crashed.

And who can forget Black Monday came, again, in 2008 when the stock market crashed, again.

Even worse, Black Friday now has infected today, Thanksgiving, with commentators referring to “Gray Thursday.” C’mon! Knock it off.

My suggestions instead?

Green Friday, because it’s all about the cash on the big shopping day after Thanksgiving.

And if commentators need a name for today, how about Brown Thursday?

Because on the day of Thanksgiving, what’s better than gravy, pumpkin pie and football?!

USD will help all scholarship athletes, SDSU will focus first on basketball teams, under cost of education initiative

The presidents of South Dakota’s largest two universities plan different approaches on providing further financial assistance to their scholarship athletes under the new NCAA permissive rules on cost of attendance. South Dakota State University will start with $5,000 apiece to 27 members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams. That would cost $135,000 for the 2016-2017 season and would be funded by donors, according to president David Chicoine. If SDSU went to cost of attendance in all 19 sponsored programs, covering all 215.67 athletes in 2015-2016 (some are partial scholarships), the price tag would be nearly $1.5 million. At the University of South Dakota, president Jim Abbott is going all in, with the cost of attendance allowance in proportion to the athlete’s scholarship. Of 375 student athletes at USD, 21 percent receive full scholarships. In year one, under Abbott’s plan, women would receive $246,545 and men would get $228,500. By year three, those amounts at USD would be women $387,280 and men $354.320. As Abbott notes in the report to the Board of Regents, donors and corporate sponsors are willing to fund the cost of attendance more than they might be for operational costs at the university because they see the initiative as “one that will make the USD athletics programs stronger and more competitive.” The full report is at

Regents will consider more associate degrees

The rivalry couldn’t be missed during the past few decades between the state university system and the four public technical institutes. The techs moved into the two-year degree field and, frankly, blew past the universities. Now the Board of Regents, whose members govern the universities, intends to pay more attention to the people seeking associate degrees as the quickest route into solid-paying careers. The regents will consider a report next week during their meeting in Spearfish. Here is a key nugget from the report:

While the figures for the public university system have edged up slowly for a decade, degree conferrals by the state’s technical institutes have surged dramatically since 2011 while associate degree conferrals from all other postsecondary institutions has declined. The technical institutes’ collective share of total associate degree production in South Dakota (63 percent) is now higher than at any point in the last decade. The public university system currently produces 17 percent of all associate degrees conferred by South Dakota institutions with the remaining 20 percent conferred by private and tribal colleges and universities.

And the report quickly makes the point that associate degrees lead to immediate entry into specific occupations but do not readily transfer to bachelor degree programs. The state universities have been all about bachelor, master and doctorate degrees.The report notes there remains much research to be done on whether associate degrees are a potential market for the state universities. But with high school graduation forecast to remain flat, and specific needs developing in South Dakota’s workforce as the result of retirements and economic growth, the universities appear ready to dive into the competition by expanding their two-year programs. Specific recommendations will come from the universities in April 2016.

If this was business, my guess is the regents would buy the four locally-run tech institutes at Watertown, Mitchell, Sioux Falls and Rapid City. But that is a discussion for some other day.

Regents will review GEAR UP plan

The decision by state Education Secretary Melody Schopp to take the GEAR UP management contract away from Mid Central Education Cooperative on Sept. 16 and shift it to the state Board of Regents caused a months-long interruption in the program. But the plan put together by the regents central office and Schopp’s shop is now ready to go. The regents will briefly consider it next week when they meet at Black Hills State University for their December gathering. BHSU is the appropriate place, because BHSU now will be the lead institution for the program that encourages high school students in low-income settings to pursue college or technical education after graduation. Some things won’t change, such as the six-week summer residence at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. Other things will change, in the hope of strengthening services to students and their families. The U.S. Department of Education provides a grant to the state Department of Education, and the money in turn will flow to the regental system to pay the people and provide the goods. The budget is proposed at $2.8 million. The largest cluster is $1.1 million for six regional coordinators working full-time and 28 school-based coordinators working half-time. The Rapid City summer event is budgeted for $575,000. There will be a project manager, a statewide coordinator of academic year programs and a statewide coordinator of summer programs. The two people overseeing all of it will be two of BHSU’s top faculty. They are June Apaza, director of the Center for the Advancement of Math and Science Education, and Urla Marcus, director of the Center for American Indian Studies. Desire, ability, preparation and will can be a powerful combination.

No, the Aeronautics Commission isn’t meeting today

The “trouble” with going for a walk at 5:30 a.m. CT is you’re ready to get to work before the sun comes over the horizon. Such was the case again this morning. I started refining my work plan as 7 a.m. approached. PUC meeting still on? Yes. State Aeronautics Commission meeting still on? Hmmm. Still no agenda posted on state government’s boards and commissions site on the Internet, despite the state law requiring 24 hours of continuous notice and despite the meeting time of 1 p.m. I dashed an email off to the folks at the state Department of Transportation who would either know or knew who would know. There weren’t any minutes posted for the previous meeting, either, and there wasn’t an agenda on DOT’s Internet site. I drove to the DOT building to see if an agenda had been posted in the front lobby’s windows. Nope. I received two emails in the next hour or so. One said there wasn’t a meeting today. The other apologized for the minutes going un-posted. So no harm, no foul, right? Well…

We have state laws regarding public meeting notices and public meeting minutes for reasons. The Legislature wants people to have the opportunity to know whether their local governments, school boards and state government are meeting. People pay the taxes that pay for the governments. I have received various reports from members of his cabinet that Gov. Dennis Daugaard spent considerable time earlier this year at a cabinet meeting on this topic. He went through the individual sites on the Internet for various state boards and commissions and found more than a few lacking the basic information that is supposed to be there. His administration created the boards and commission site for specifically that reason; he wanted a one-stop place where ideally all public meetings of state government could be found. I don’t keep a percentage but some agencies are better than others at keeping their information current on the one-stop site. Some pieces of state government don’t use the site. They should. Constitutional officers likewise have mixed records on its use. The state Public Utilities Commission runs perhaps the best Internet site but doesn’t post its meetings on the one-stop site. The Legislature doesn’t use it. The court system aka the Unified Judicial System doesn’t use it for its administrative meetings.

The other failing is when a board or commission doesn’t give more than the legally required minimum of 24 hours continuous notice for a meeting. Maybe that’s tolerable for a city council, and maybe it’s sort of tolerable for a school board or a county commission, because the distances for traveling to a meeting are short or at least not far (unless you’re somewhere giant such as Meade County). But for state meetings, a minimum of 48 hours of continuous notice would be better, and even better than that would be two business days. A few weeks ago we heard the comments made at the South Dakota High School Activities Association board of directors meeting that directors had received the mascot resolution just two days earlier. We know the South Dakota Retirement System board of trustees recently was planning for some time about holding a special meeting but the public didn’t learn until approximately two days before the meeting. As any legislator can tell you, it’s darn hard to find out about a meeting on Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. and make arrangements to travel to Pierre (or any location) by 9 a.m. Wednesday. Our state is wide and deep. The population centers are almost all nearly three hours or longer driving time away from the capital.

The citizens pay for the government. Showing them courtesy by providing more time for them to learn about what’s on a meeting agenda and to plan to travel to the meeting seems essential to that relationship.

PUC ready to decide on Dakota Access pipeline

Come Monday, Nov. 30, the state Public Utilities Commission gathers at 1:30 p.m. CT in room 413 of the Capitol to talk about one decision: Whether to grant a construction and operation permit for the Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline to cross through South Dakota. The PUC staff filed a letter saying it agrees with the permit conditions proposed by the company. The pipeline would carry oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota to Illinois. A link will be posted at for the live audio. The full docket is here.

A positive force for our environment

The James River water development district levies a tax and uses the revenue for environmental projects on the length of one of South Dakota’s richest agricultural valleys. The latest round of funding approved last week by the district’s board spread $306,378 among a variety of work intended to keep the river cleaner and to keep it flowing better.

The Beadle, Brown-Marshall, South Brown, Davison, Hanson, Hutchinson, Marshall, Sanborn, Spink and Yankton conservation districts received $10,000 apiece for tree planting. Aurora County received $5,000.

The Yankton district also received $10,000 for a grass-seeding drill. The Beadle district gets $26,250 for a demonstration site to show how to slow runoff and erosion. Dimock is set for $50,000 toward improvements in its water-treatment facilities.

One of the non-government organizations that play an increasingly important role in conservation, restoration and improvement of habitat, Ducks Unlimited, will see $45,000 for work along Firesteel Creek in Aurora County. DU also will get $2,000 for work downstream from Mina Lake in Brown County. A landowner in Yankton County is set for $44,981 to build three dams. And the U.S. Geological Survey receives $23,147 for gaging stations that measure stream flow of the James River at Stratford, Redfield and Yankton.

DOT secretary says Congress close to highway deal

State Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist said Friday that Congress is moving forward “at a very slow pace” on the highway funding package. Speaking to the state Transportation Commission, he said the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate approved a two-week extension for the current plan to continue until Dec. 4.

Each chamber has passed its version of a new multi-year plan. Now the differences need to be negotiated into a unified final version. He said the House-Senate conference committee met Wednesday for the first time. “Figuring out a way to fund the package is their big challenge, along with other smaller issues they’re working on,” he said. The conference report is due Nov. 30

“I do remain relatively optimistic that ultimately we are going to get something that will be relatively satisfactory,” Bergquist said. “Things are aligned to get something done.”