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.

Bakken pipeline route filed for South Dakota w/tax update

Another crude-oil pipeline, this one carrying exclusively production from the Bakken and Three Forks formations, is proposed to cross South Dakota. The plans and permit application, filed with the state Public Utilities Commission, can be seen here. The line is called Dakota Access and would be 1,134 miles long from northwestern North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The segment through South Dakota would cover 271.6 miles. It would enter through Campbell County and cross McPherson, Edmunds, Faulk, Spink, Beadle, Kingsbury, Miner, Lake, McCook, Minnehaha, Turner and Lincoln counties en route to Iowa. There would be one pumping station seven miles south of Redfield for the South Dakota segment. It would carry 450,000 barrels per day and could handle up to 570,000. The company is based in Houston, Texas. The estimated total cost is $3.8 billion with the South Dakota segment costing $820 million. Dakota Access wants to start construction in 2015 once state, federal and local permits have been obtained. The timetable calls for commissioning the pipeline in August 2016 with service starting October 2016. The company plans to hire 12 full-time permanent employees in South Dakota. During the peak of construction in 2016, the company expects two spreads of 724 workers apiece.

TAX UPDATE: The company estimates the project will pay approximately $36 million in various state taxes during the construction period and approximately $3 million in local taxes. The first full year of operation will generate about $14 million in property taxes to local governments, according to the company.

Map of the route is available from the PUC filing here.

Regarding Johnson’s and Rounds’ committee assignments

U.S. Sen.-elect Mike Rounds, a Republican who will be serving in a new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate come January, received his four committee assignments Monday. They are Armed Services; Veterans Affairs; Environment and Public Works; and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat in a current Democratic majority, is retiring from the seat Rounds will fill. Johnson is departing as committee chairman of Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. He also serves on three other committees: Energy and Natural Resources; Appropriations; and Indian Affairs.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, a Republican, is in line to become committee chairman for Commerce, Science and Transportation. He currently is the senior Republican member. Thune also will be returning to the committees on Finance; and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican who is South Dakota’s one member in the U.S. House of Representatives where a Republican majority has been re-elected, serves on two House committees. They are Armed Services and Agriculture.

It will be worth watching to see how Sen.-elect Rounds takes positions on the banking committee in comparison to where Sen. Johnson stood. It also will be important to see which of South Dakota’s three congressional members takes up Indian affairs matters without a seat on that committee and with nine tribal governments in South Dakota. It is also noteworthy that South Dakota has members in both chambers on the agriculture and armed services panels.

Monopoly Millionaires’: Go directly to lotto jail

Director Norm Lingle spent some time last week explaining to the South Dakota Lottery Commission the difficulties facing the new lotto game, Monopoly Millionaires’ Club. Sales per person in South Dakota were less than half of expectations. “This is a pretty complex game,” Lingle said. The $5 price didn’t help, he added. “It became clear it was difficult for our retailers to explain this game,”  he said. Roger Novotny, a commission member, said, “It struck me right when it was proposed this was too complex.” Lingle said some changes were under consideration for the multi-state game. The other shoe dropped Monday evening when South Dakota Lottery joined those other states in announcing the game would end soon. The final sales day will be Dec. 26. Joe Willinham, the lottery’s marketing director, noted at the Thursday commission meeting that other lotto games have flopped in the past two decades. Among those he mentioned was Cash 4 Life, for example. “Yeah, it does happen,” Willingham said. Sales of Monopoly since the start Oct. 19 in South Dakota totaled about $128,000, he said, with South Dakota ranking eleventh in per capita sales among 22 states offering the game. Lingle said changes might be coming for Powerball, the top-selling lotto game in South Dakota. He said a rules hearing will be needed at some point in the months ahead.

Will state board give state employees more ‘per diem’?

The state Board of Finance meets at 2 p.m. tomorrow (Dec. 16) and among the routine topics is kind of a big one. The board will consider increase reimbursement rates for mileage and meals for state employees who are on official government travel. In-state meal rates currently are $5 breakfast, $9 lunch, $12 dinner and $2 evening supper for a maximum of $26 per day. Mileage reimbursement for use of a private vehicle on state government business is 37 cents per mile, unless there is a state vehicle available, and then the rate drops to 20 cents per mile.

Susie Knippling honored, without her coat

That’s a joke but it’s true. For eight years, Susie Knippling of Gann Valley wore a coat or jacket at meetings of the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission because the rooms typically felt cool to her. At some meetings GFP staff arranged for heaters to be near the commission’s table. She finished her two terms on the commission in the past year, but she was honored in July at the annual summer gathering of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for her work. Knippling wasn’t able to attend the meeting in San Antonio, Texas, but GFP Secretary Jeff Vonk brought back her plaque — and the honorary lifetime membership that was awarded to her. Vonk presented the plaque to her Thursday afternoon at the commission’s meeting in Fort Pierre. She didn’t wear her coat for the picture. Why? It’s pretty warm in here, she replied. Then-Gov. Mike Rounds found a good one when he appointed Susie Knippling to the commission.

Another ram license will be auctioned

The state Game, Fish and Parks Commission decided Thursday that no changes were needed for the 2015 bighorn sheep hunting season. That means no need for a public hearing. There will be three licenses available again. Two will be distributed by random drawing among qualified applicants. The third, under a previously adopted rule, will be put up for auction in 2015. It will be the third time that a ram license will be auctioned. The first time brought $104,000. Last year brought $80,000. Money is used for the Black Hills sheep program by the state Wildlife Division. Plans call for bringing more bighorns to South Dakota and establishing a third herd in the Lead area.

Steve Rounds wants out of GFP concession w/2d update

The state Game, Fish and Parks Commission will consider at its meeting today (Thursday) and Friday the conditions for ending the concession agreement with Steve Rounds for Oahe Marina on the Missouri River below Oahe Dam outside Fort Pierre. The documents indicate Rounds wants to sell all rights, title and interest in Oahe Marina and relinquish all rights under the concession agreement that expires Dec. 30 of 2041. In exchange he wants $641,000 from the next operator. GFP will issue a prospectus. The  hope is for a closing before March 1, 2015. He is a brother of former governor and now U.S. Sen.-elect Mike Rounds.

Steve Rounds got the lease while his brother was governor and in October 2010 received an 11-year extension on the lease in exchange for agreeing to make $325,000 of improvements. Thirteen months later, he received another 10-year extension, taking the lease out to 2041. Rounds’ banker Larry Dieter — currently at the state Division of Insurance — told the commission that day Rounds was in a difficult spot because the 2011 flood left him without income for a long period. A provision of the vote that day was the 30-year contract would become void if sold to another operator.

UPDATE: The commission approved the settlement allowing Rounds to leave the lease Thursday.

SECOND UPDATE: A post on the Facebook page for Oahe Marina claims this story is false. Readers can look at the actual document approved by the commission at this link at the Game, Fish and Parks website.

GOED making changes in energy policy structure

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development has been the long-time home to the state office of energy policy. Hunter Roberts will be leaving the post of energy policy director to join the governor’s staff, starting Monday. He will take many of his duties with him, according to GOED Commissioner Pat Costello. Roberts will cover some of the ground previously handled by Dusty Johnson, who was the governor’s chief of staff and a former state Public Utilities Commission member. Johnson recently stepped down to take a job in the private sector at Mitchell. Costello said GOED won’t rehire to fill the energy-policy post at GOED. Costello said there is consideration of legislation that would repeal the state energy infrastructure authority and the state wind-energy task force, both of which have been in mothballs for some years.

A user’s guide to the Keystone proceeding w/update

The state Public Utilities Commission considers some procedural matters this morning regarding whether to certify that TransCanada’s Keystone XL project continues to meet the conditions under which the PUC originally granted the permit for the oil pipeline. The Keystone matter is the seventh docket on today’s PUC agenda. The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. CST and can be heard live via the Internet by a link at the top of the PUC’s main web page here. The meeting agenda is available at this spot. The many intervenors sides of the arguments at issue today can be found near the bottom of the list of filings here can be found in TransCanada’s Dec. 4 response. The PUC won’t make any final decision today, but what the PUC rules today regarding the scope of the certification process will be important.

UPDATE: The PUC set a procedural schedule today that culminates in a May 5-8 hearing on the permit certification. That’s five weeks later than originally proposed by PUC staff. The commission also set a discovery standard that is both loose and tight: “My motion would allow discovery that is relevant to the conditions,” commissioner Chris Nelson said. The original permit set 50 conditions and 48 sub-conditions. The hearing will determine whether TransCanada, which hasn’t started construction, continues to meet those conditions in the permit, which was approved June 29, 2010. You can read the permit here.

Recommended reading: 41

The biography of George Herbert Walker Bush by his son George W. Bush is light, fast, often surprising and generally informative. 41: A Portrait of My Father is unique among American literature because it is the only book written by a son who was a U.S. president about his father who was a U.S. president. I was interested for that reason, but I wasn’t quite interested enough to buy a copy before I had read any reviews. Meanwhile the staff at Rawlins Municipal Library in Pierre showed its acumen once again; I was fortunate to discover the book on the shelf and be its first reader. I enjoyed it and I am richer for having read it. I respect George Herbert Walker Bush now more than I had before. He is one of the four one-term presidents during my lifetime so far (not counting Gerald Ford, who didn’t win election, and categorizing Lyndon Johnson as one term because he didn’t run for a second term even though he served the remaining year-plus of John Kennedy’s first term). I have tried to read biographies of all of the presidents in our nation’s history — I still have a few scattered gaps to fill — and 41 is special for its perspective. If you’re in search of a Christmas gift, this would be worth picking up at your local bookstore, whether for someone else or yourself.