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.

“Red Cloud: Oglala Legend”

On this 26th annual Native Americans’ Day (the Legislature established the state holiday in 1990), there is a book worth noting. The South Dakota State Historical Society Press published Red Cloud: Oglala Legend this year. Steve Lee of the Pierre Capital Journal wrote a solid piece about the book and its author, John McCermott, back in August. Much of the attention in the past year for SDSHS Press has come regarding the Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography Pioneer Girl. It is deserved. McDermott’s latest Red Cloud book deserves some too.

And for those wondering what the state law says about Native Americans’ Day, here you go:

“The second Monday in October, to be known as Native Americans’ Day, shall be observed in this state as a legal holiday. Native Americans’ Day is dedicated to the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state.”

Republican caucuses will decide teacher pay

The reality is that the task force appointed by the governor to study teachers and students in South Dakota’s K-12 public schools won’t be able to propose a final solution on teacher pay when the panel meets for the final time Oct. 29 at View 34 on Pierre’s east side. That decision will be reached behind closed doors, in private meetings of the Legislature’s Republicans, who have enough votes in each of the Senate and the House of Representatives to approve tax increases — or block tax increases. There are approximately 75 days from the final meeting of the task force until the opening gavels of the 2016 legislative session. Then there are 38 working days in the session, which starts Jan. 12 and ends March 29.

What the task force hasn’t shown yet is that salaries — last in the nation on average — are a problem for teachers and students. We haven’t seen yet the link between teacher pay and student performance by school district. That answer might cut to the bone — or it might not. Addressing that question with state laws to penalize low-paying, low-performing school districts also would challenge the dearly-held concept of local control of schools by local school boards.

To this point, the task force with its 26 members — so many individuals that the task force breaks into three groups for discussions of conceptual ideas — hasn’t show the ability to reach a point by point set of recommendations. Perhaps someone is working on that document in advance of the Oct. 29 meeting. But based on what was and wasn’t produced at the Oct. 1 meeting, there is no evidence so far the task force will be able to generate recommendations that the Legislature and Gov. Dennis Daugaard could use as a map for the 2016 session.

The business community hasn’t come forward. The private universities, colleges and public and private technical institutes don’t even have a seat at the table. (The state universities have one.) The real crush in South Dakota is employable people and living-wage jobs for those people. That is the disconnect in South Dakota’s economy right now. There are indeed thousands of jobs available, but how many allow people to make a reasonable living and protect themselves and their families with insurance and retirement savings? Working multiple part-time jobs isn’t the answer to that challenge.

Teaching school offers those very things across nearly all of South Dakota, regardless whether salaries on average are lowest in the nation. But so do most of the jobs waiting for tech-school graduates, who typically are in the work force in two years, and frequently at an equal or higher level of initial pay, rather than four or five years that are required for a teaching degree.

Unless the governor and the Republican majorities are willing to approve higher taxes, teacher pay can’t be improved on a consistent, statewide basis. And unless there is some sort of tuition-forgiveness program developed immediately for teachers to work in higher-need subjects and higher-need areas, such as one year of forgiveness on tuition and fees in exchange for one year of teaching, we won’t see much if any change. Such a forgiveness program requires additional funding as well.

This comes down to money and whether elected leaders are willing to take more money from citizens. I don’t know many current legislators who won election promising to raise taxes.

Another good read on the House Republicans’ struggle

There is a strong report in the New York Times today (Saturday) further explaining the goals of the Freedom Caucus, a small group within the House Republican majority that seeks some big changes in the power structure of the U.S. House of Representatives. You can read it here. In some ways, it sounds like the Freedom Caucus wants the U.S. House to run much like the South Dakota House of Representatives: The majority leader sets the direction and the speaker runs the institution; and every bill gets a committee hearing and no one prohibits motions for amendments. Technically, the speaker makes the committee appointments in South Dakota, including the chairmen of the committees. And I must repeat the question I asked on Twitter two days ago: Why not U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-South Dakota, for speaker of the U.S. House?

NPR interview gets to heart of battle for speaker of U.S. House (w/extra reading)

Go here to hear the interview this morning on National Public Radio with U.S. Rep. David Schweikert, R-Arizona, about the underlying issue that is splitting House Republicans in their struggle to choose a new speaker to succeed U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. Schweikert is a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, a group of House Republicans who refused to support U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California. That group instead wanted U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Florida. But as Schweikert explains to NPR’s Renee Montagne this morning, the Freedom Caucus is after a rule change that would make the amendment process easier and more open. Schweikert said it’s not so much a matter of the person as it is the issue. There certainly might be more to this matter, but the Schweikert interview is an important perspective.

Extra reading: The Arizona Republic newspaper has a story that doesn’t have as much detail as the NPR interview but offers some additional insight from Schweikert. Read it here.

My apology to Harvey Wollman and Walt Miller

Yesterday, in reporting on the memorial service for former Gov. Walter Dale Miller, I mistakenly wrote that he was South Dakota’s only governor who wasn’t elected. I forgot about former Gov. Harvey Wollman, who served for five-plus months at the end of 1978 after then-Gov. Dick Kneip resigned to become a U.S. ambassador. A reader e-mailed me today. I am sorry to Harvey Wollman and to newspaper readers for the error.

Also, we discovered another error Monday in the Legislative Research Council’s historical page for Walter Dale Miller. He served 20 years in the state House of Representatives prior to being elected lieutenant governor. The LRC page listed Miller as serving from Pennington County. Actually, he lived in Meade County, immediately north of New Underwood, which is in Pennington County. He used a rural New Underwood address. I have little doubt that I have used the Pennington County reference at times in stories about Walt Miller. I am sorry to Walt Miller and to newspaper readers for that error.

Fortunately I caught the point Monday during the memorial service when state Attorney General Marty Jackley referred to Miller as “Meade County’s favorite son.” As a result, I was able to correctly identify Miller as a Meade County legislator in one of the stories I wrote Monday. A Meade County resident also let me know late Monday evening about the LRC error. It likely is being corrected by LRC staff already or in the near future.

Voter registration sinks, for now

Every two years, county auditors throughout South Dakota and the Secretary of State office check the voter registration rolls for people who are registered to vote but haven’t been active. One reason is it reduces opportunity for voter fraud; another is it keeps the registration lists cleaner. That process has been under way again and the latest registration numbers are down across the board. As of Oct. 5, the Secretary of State office reports the following:

Republicans total 240,452, down from 243,881 last month;

Democrats total 172,030, down from 175,172 last month; and

Independents, no-affiliations and others total 109,959, down from 111,577.

Republicans are essentially back where they stood for the 2014 general elections. Democrats are at their lowest point in some years. INOs are some 9,000 above where they were for the 2014 general elections. We’ll likely see the numbers climb in the months ahead as we approach the 2016 elections, although the trends we see in this snapshot seem to be a continuing picture.

Walter Dale Miller, 1925-2015

Former Gov. Walter Dale Miller is in the state Capitol for a final time today, with a memorial service marking his life on what would have been his 90th birthday. Miller died Sept. 28. He will be buried at Rapid City on Wednesday. He was lieutenant governor when Gov. George S. Mickelson died with seven other men in a crash of the state airplane on April 19, 1993. Miller became governor and ran for the Republican nomination in June 1994 but lost to former Gov. Bill Janklow. Miller served until Janklow took office the following January. Here is the cover from the 1994 campaign magazine telling “The Walt Miller story” for the 1994 primary.


As deadline nears, two ballot measures on hold

At this point, there are potentially 16 measures for the 2016 general election ballot in South Dakota. The deadline for submitting the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot is Nov. 9. Three are already on the ballot: Two referrals of legislation passed in the 2015 session and a constitutional amendment on technical schools recommended from the Legislature. That leaves 13 whose status remains uncertain. With five weeks to go until the signature deadline, two of the measures still aren’t being circulated.

One, a proposed constitutional amendment, would have established non-partisan elections and created secret elections for state legislative officers; a similar measure minus the legislative-officers provisions however is circulating. The other, a proposed set of laws, would substantially rewrite South Dakota’s campaign finance laws and lobbying laws. Rick Weiland, the 2014 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is involved in all three. He also is involved in the proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate South Dakota’s system of party primary elections; the replacement plan calls for making primary elections open to all qualified voters, regardless of any party registration, with the top two vote-getters in the primary election advancing to the general election. The candidates would run without party identification.