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.

Voter registration wasn’t all that hot in September

South Dakota voter registration rose in September but not as much as the Septembers of 2012 and 2010. The latest statistics from the Secretary of State’s office show registration was 515,379 on Sept. 2 and climbed to 517,003 as of today (Oct. 1). And I bet you can guess where the gains came, right?

Republican registration increased to 239,355 from 238,791. That wasn’t much different than the month to month gains for Republicans starting in March. The significance is in that trend: Republicans have added more than 4,000 registered voters since March.

Democratic registration went up slightly to 175,186 today from 175,168 on Sept. 2. Democrats are still below their March count of 176,081.

The news for both of South Dakota’s major political camps is Democrats are down by more than 13,000 registered voters since October 2013, while Republicans are down by less than 4,000.

In the past month Constitutionalists slipped by five members to 695 registered while Libertarians grew by nine to 1,356.

So we leave the bigger story for last. The independents/not-affiliated column rocketed back into six figures again, growing to 100,547 as of today from 99,509 on Sept. 2. An increase of more than 1,000 in one month surpassed the growth of Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians combined.

Since March, independents/not-affiliated voters have climbed by more than 5,100, exceeding the pace of Republicans’ gains.

‘Blind school’ advisory group offered

Marjorie Kaiser, superintendent for the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired at Aberdeen, is asking the state Board of Regents to approve the following people for the SDSBVI Advisory Council for the 2014-2015 school year:

1. Parent (on campus student): Sarah Ossanna, Aberdeen
2. Parent (outreach student): Vacant
3. SDSBVI On-Campus Faculty: Lorri Peterson
4. SDSBVI Outreach Faculty: Julie VanDover
5. SD Association for the Blind: Dawn Brush
6. SD Federation for the Blind: Jackie Campbell
7. Northern State University Education Department: Doris Stusiak
8. Service to the Blind and Visually Impaired: Twyla Eggers
9. SD Braille and Talking Book Library: Colleen Kirby
10. SD Public Schools: Kristin Hamman
11. SD Pubic Schools: Marie Ivers
12. Community Leader: Dean North
13. Community Leader: John Emmett, Aberdeen Lions Club
14. SD Board of Regents: Regent Kathryn Johnson (ex-officio)
15. SDSBVI Superintendent: Dr. Marjorie Kaiser (ex-officio)

Regents will consider school principals training

You can page through the document to see the new approach for generating more school principals that the state Board of Regents will be mulling next week. Four of South Dakota’s public universities at Aberdeen, Spearfish, Vermillion and Brookings are asking permission to move forward in planning a joint delivery system for a master in education degree in principal preparation. They would use university classrooms, on-line and video technology for the program, with an initial enrollment of 20 to 25. The students typically would be teachers already working in schools. Three of the universities — Northern State, USD and South Dakota State — already offer master degrees in education but the proposed program would be focused tightly on preparing principals for K-12 public, private and tribal schools in South Dakota. This is an important development for K-12 education.The regents, who govern the public higher education system, will consider the proposal at their meeting next week in Aberdeen. The proposal is on a committee agenda Wednesday afternoon and the full board would consider on Thursday morning the committee’s recommendation.

Regarding Ron Gardenhire

Here’s a look at some simple statistics for the Minnesota Twins during the 13 years while Ron Gardenhire was manager. He was fired Monday. The batting statistics are average and on-base percentage. The pitching statistic is earned-runs average. I pieced together the numbers and rankings season by season from baseball-reference.com.

2014: Batting .254 (7th), OBP .324 (2nd). Pitching ERA 4.58 (15th). Record 70-92.

2013: Batting .242 (12th), OBP .312 (11th). Pitching ERA 4.55 (14th). Record 66-96.

2012: Batting .260 (6th), OBP .325 (5th). Pitching ERA 4.77 (13th). Record 66-96.

2011: Batting .247 (11th), OBP .306 (13th). Pitching ERA 4.58 (13th). Record 63-99.

2010: Batting .273 (3rd), OBP .341 (2nd). Pitching ERA 3.95 (5th). Record 94-68.

2009: Batting .274 (3rd), OBP .345 (4th). Pitching ERA 4.50 (11th). Record 87-76.

2008: Batting .279 (3rd), OBP .340 (4th). Pitching ERA 4.16 (7th). Record 88-75.

2007: Batting .264 (9th), OBP .330 (10th). Pitching ERA 4.15 (4th). Record 79-83.

2006: Batting .287 (1st), OBP .347 (5th). Pitching ERA 3.95 (2nd). Record 96-66.

2005: Batting .259 (13th), OBP .323 (10th). Pitching ERA 3.71 (5th). Record 83-79.

2004: Batting .266 (10th), OBP .332 (9th). Pitching ERA 4.03 (1st). Record 92-70.

2003: Batting .277 (3rd), OBP .341 (5th). Pitching ERA 4.41 (7th). Record 90-72.

2002: Batting .272 (5th), OBP .332 (8th). Pitching ERA 4.12 (6th). Record 94=67.

The lesson seems to have been four weak seasons in a row and you’re out. 2010 marked the Twins’ first year in Target Field. The losing began in year two and hasn’t stopped.

It’s worth looking at the 2010 roster when the Twins last posted a winning record. The regulars in the batting order were Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia, Delmon Young, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Justin Morneau and Nick Punto. The regulars on the mound were Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Brian Duensing, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and closers Matt Capps and Jon Rauch.

The only player from that 2010 group still on the Twins’ major league roster in 2014 was Mauer. Now Gardenhire and his coaching staff are gone too.

Does EB-5 matter in Senate race?

For months the EB-5 foreign investor program didn’t seem to be on the minds of South Dakota voters. The Nielsen Brothers Polling results released Monday night now suggest it is. Granted, this is one poll, conducted Sept. 21-25, but the numbers are significant far beyond any potential margin of error. According to NBP, 37 percent of the respondents have a negative view of EB-5 while 14 percent expressed a favorable view. Another 13 percent weren’t sure. The second-largest bloc, 35 percent, hadn’t heard of EB-5. That meant, as absentee voting began Sept. 19, two of three potential voters in South Dakota were aware of EB-5.

Will it affect the U.S. Senate contest? That is the question facing the Republican nominee, former Gov. Mike Rounds. His administration made EB-5 a secret piece of its economic development strategy, especially starting in about 2008 through 2010, when the emphasis shifted from small dairy development to big projects attracting hundreds of South Korean and Chinese investors at $500,000 apiece. The NBP survey found 44 percent of the respondents said EB-5 wouldn’t affect their voting, while 30 percent said it would and 26 percent weren’t sure.

NBP didn’t specifically ask about EB-5 in its July 23-28 survey, so we can’t make any observations about how EB-5 might fit into the voters’ opinions about the four candidates for U.S. Senate.

What has happened, according to NBP, was Rounds stayed in the lead but didn’t gain. He was at 42.9 percent in July and 39.4 in September. Likewise, Democratic candidate Rick Weiland was at 30.2 in July and 25.7 in September. The margins between Rounds and Weiland remained roughly the same (12.7 in July and 13.7 in September).

The new factor was independent Larry Pressler, the former Republican. Pressler was the U.S. senator from 1979 through 1996, when he lost to Democratic challenger Tim Johnson. Pressler was at 14.2 percent in NBP’s July poll and rose to 23.7 in the September poll.

NBP found Pressler’s support in the September poll came from 46 percent Republicans, 38 percent Democrats and the remainder independents or other parties.

Rounds meanwhile had a base of 83 percent Republicans, 10 percent Democrats and the remainder independents and others.

Weiland’s support was 71 percent Democrats, 12 percent Republicans and 18 percent independents and others.

Pressler’s cross-party appeal and the single-party candidacies of Rounds and Weiland were generally consistent with the same broad appeal he showed in the Survey South Dakota polling results released earlier in September for the Aberdeen American News, KSFY TV and KOTA TV.

The fourth candidate in the Senate contest, independent Gordon Howie, showed little movement from July to September in NBP’s surveys. Howie, a former Republican and a former legislator, was at 4.1 percent in July and 3.6 percent in September.

Undecideds were 8.6 percent in July and 7.2 percent in September. Those results suggest there aren’t enough unattached voters to swing the outcome by themselves.

Instead the race is at zero-sum status, where one candidate’s gain comes at the loss for another candidate. There seems to have been some of that shifting from July to September in favor of Pressler drawing equally from Rounds and Weiland.

It’s increasingly clear, because their supporters are so heavily tilted to their respective political parties, that Rounds and Weiland aren’t going to strip voters from each other. Pressler would need to reach at least 35 percent to be in position to overtake Rounds. That would mean pulling an additional 5 to 6 percent from Rounds and 5 to 6 percent from Weiland in the five to six weeks left in the campaign.

Can Pressler get to 35 percent? Anything can happen but consider this: Rounds would be at or below 35 percent and Weiland would be in the lower 20s. There are two reasons I don’t think those low levels of support would occur for Rounds and Weiland.

In the case of Weiland, it seems unlikely that thousands more Democrats are going to defect to Pressler, after they voted against Pressler in 1996 to elect Johnson. The key for Johnson in 1996 was the Democrats’ get out the vote effort. Pressler didn’t match it and Johnson won. Now Johnson is retiring. Weiland ran when no other Democrat would. Behind the scenes Democrats knew they probably couldn’t keep the seat.

Then there is this question: Who has the get out the vote effort this time? The answer, based on the June primary, is Rounds. He had some powerful showings in counties where there happened to be strongly contested Republican legislative primaries. The Rounds campaign heading into November undoubtedly benefited from the June test run of its GOTV efforts in the primary. Weiland didn’t have a test run and probably doesn’t have the money for GOTV that Rounds has for the general election. Pressler, pouring the little money he can raise into his ads, probably won’t have a GOTV effort.

With early voting under way via absentee ballots, Rounds likely is already building up his lead. Every ballot cast early is one that can’t be changed if some news breaks, such as on EB-5.

Weather scientists take deeper look at Atlas

The snowstorm that ripped through South Dakota in early October a year ago is the topic of one of the papers in the special supplement to the September 2014 edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. You can read the report here. The paper on South Dakota storm Atlas is about three pages. Some of it is over my head and some is way over my head, but I took a few points: 1) 45,000 head of livestock died in the Oct. 4-5 storm; 2) there was a similar early blizzard in North Dakota on Oct. 4-5, 2005; 3) there was a lot of moisture in the air but not a record-setting amount; and 4) the storm didn’t appear to be related to climate change. There are other events in the 96-page report that were, however, according to the weather scientists. The slides for the news media presentation can be seen here.

U.S. Senate polling again favors Rounds

Nielsen Brothers Polling hasn’t sent the results to me yet, but its latest round of polling shows former Gov. Mike Rounds still in front among people who are likely voters in the U.S. Senate contest this fall.

To read Todd Epp’s take go here. His Northern Plains News collaborated with NBP on the survey. The emphasis in the Epp post is the rise of independent Larry Pressler, a former Republican and the former U.S. senator prior to the incumbent, Democrat Tim Johnson, who’s retiring after three Senate terms and five U.S. House terms.

Madville Times’ blogger Cory Heidelberger offers his view here. The Heidelberger emphasis is on Rounds, the Republican nominee, now below 40 percent — and Pressler in a better position than the Democratic candidate, Rick Weiland, to win if one or other wasn’t in the race. It’s complicated but interesting.

The Republican blogger Pat Powers at Dakota War College provides his perspective here. The Powers emphasis is that Rounds still has a double-digit lead. He also casts doubt on NBP and says a Rounds internal poll has Rounds in a stronger position.

The NBP poll reportedly has Rounds at 39 percent, Weiland at 26, Pressler at 24 and independent Gordon Howie, a former Republican and former legislator, at 4 percent. The movement, according to Epp’s analysis, has been Pressler gaining 10 points while Rounds and Weiland each dropped 4 points while Howie was steady. The numbers indicate about 7 percent undecided, which means Rounds remains in command of the bus.

Controversy afoot on US 14 at Brookings

Implement dealers and haulers of houses and mobile homes laid out their problems to the state Transportation Commission on Thursday regarding SDDOT’s plans to construct roundabouts at either side of the interchange of the US 14 truck route and Interstate 29 at Brookings. They want a three-lane bridge deck or no change rather than the roundabouts, which they say will create traffic jams when big trucks try to get through and traffic has to be stopped simultaneously at both roundabouts on either side of the bridge that crosses I-29. SDDOT sees the roundabouts as a way to relieve some traffic congestion when the south interchange of US 14 and I-29 is rebuilt. The roundabouts already are in SDDOT’s 2015 construction plan, but the project hasn’t gone to bid, and the Transportation Commission will talk more at its October meeting about how to proceed. Owners and managers of businesses that operate at the north interchange also want the speed limit on the US 14 truck route reduced from the posted 55 mph or at least more enforcement of the 55. They described the route as already in heavy use with the soybean plant at Volga west of Brookings and the ethanol plant at Aurora east of Brookings, and Bel Brands will add to the truck traffic as milk moves in and cheese moves out of its new Brookings plant.

Six groups call for study on farmland values

The long transition to the productivity method for setting values of agricultural land for property taxes will be under way for five more years. There are two glitches. Many counties remain far behind in adjusting their cropland values up to where they should be. And many producers argue they’re being charged too much for keeping cropland in grass rather than planting a crop. During the meeting last week of the Legislature’s task force on agricultural property values, a coalition of six farm and ranch groups asked for a step in the direction of converting the valuation system to actual use. The organizations are the Cattlemen, conservation districts, grasslands coalition, Farm Bureau, Farmers Union and Stockgrowers. (Anytime you have the Cattlemen and the Stockgrowers, and Farm Bureau and Farmers Union, all on the same side, it’s worth noting.) They want actual use. They also want updated information on what a change to actual use would mean in shifting the tax burden within agriculture.

Brenda Forman spoke for the groups in testimony to the task force. One of the arguments against changing to actual use is that many acres of property would be changed from cropland to non-cropland and taxes would decrease on those acres. The six organizations want a study that analyzes those acres and analyzes the non-cropland that would be reclassified as cropland. Soil types form the foundation of the productivity system: Cropland-rated soils are treated as cropland in most instances regardless whether they are in crops or grass. From a conservation perspective, the current tax policy strongly encourages removal of grass and planting of crops, whether or not the property actually makes for good cropland, and whether or not the property can actually be cropped.

The six organizations said Kirk Chaffee, a task force member and the director of equalization and planning for Meade County, has used a mapping method that would more accurately reflect the use of properties statewide. Forman’s testimony noted that in Meade County, a state Department of Revenue analysis showed 700,000 acres of crop-rated soils while a federal set of statistics showed 500,000 acres. “These type of discrepancies need to be reconciled,” Forman told the task force.

South Dakota State University’s economics department is assigned in state law to work with the task force. The six organizations would like SDSU to perform a new analysis statewide. That decision will rest with SDSU, whose personnel would do the work, and with the task force, whose members face a big step politically. The task force’s current chairman is Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, who is leaving the Legislature at the end of this year. He ran in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate but didn’t win the nomination. Since the task force’s formation years ago, only legislators have been its chairman; Rhoden followed Sen. Dave Knudson, R-Sioux Falls, who ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010 and didn’t win. It’s not clear who might be the next chairman. That will be decided behind the scenes after the Nov. 4 legislative elections by the House and Senate leaders. In the meantime, the task force faces another change. Barton Pflueger, who’s been SDSU’s expert working with the committee, is retiring. SDSU has assigned Matthew Elliott to work with the task force.

Legislators have a record to examine on EB-5

During the course of the past 10 months the Daugaard administration and at times state Attorney General Marty Jackley have released key documents in the EB-5 matter. One key set which was produced at this reporter’s request by the Daugaard administration contained the correspondence between Joop Bollen and the U.S. Citzenship and Immigration Services regarding the South Dakota Regional Center’s scope of activities.

USCIS oversees the EB-5 foreign investor visa program at the federal level. Regional centers act as the brokers who recruit foreign investments for job-creation projects in the United States. There was during the Rounds administration a steady series of correspondence between Bollen, acting on behalf of South Dakota, and USCIS.

Essentially these were requests by Bollen to USCIS for permission to seek investors in certain activities. The activities in which EB-5 can be used are defined in federal laws and regulations. USCIS permission is needed before seeking investors in those activities.

Most of the correspondence regarding the South Dakota Regional Center’s scope was on file with what’s now the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and previously was under the Department of Tourism and State Development. The Bollen correspondence with USCIS shows a steady pattern of working with various departments in the Rounds administration on EB-5 matters.

To my knowledge, the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee hasn’t looked at these documents.

They provide a road map of how EB-5 grew in scope and activity between 2003 and 2010 while Mike Rounds was governor. The scope and activity grew considerably after 2006, when Rounds hired Richard Benda as secretary of tourism and state development.

This culminated in the 2009 contract signed by Benda and Bollen, who technically was working at Northern State University in the South Dakota International Business Institute. Bollen had formed his own company, coincidentally named SDRC Inc., in 2008.

The state contract gave SDRC Inc. the management and administrative responsibilities for EB-5 use in South Dakota. In return the contract gave state government a secret source of revenue from fees collected by SDRC Inc. from foreign investors.

No one has shown that any of this relationship between state government and SDRC Inc. was discussed publicly with the Legislature. Also unexamined was whether the revenue-generating arrangement in the contract was legal for state government to use.

The money due state government was kept in a bank account that SDRC Inc. controlled, until the Daugaard administration demanded that state government be part of joint control over that account.

Details of this contract were negotiated between a private lawyer for SDRC Inc. and the private lawyer routinely used by the Department of Tourism and State Development and is still used by GOED.

Daugaard’s economic development commissioner, Pat Costello, terminated the state contract on Sept. 19, 2013. Benda was found dead on Oct. 22 of what investigators determined was a self-inflicted shotgun wound to his abdomen using a stick to to push the trigger.

The Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee meets today and will spend the morning going through the written answers from Rounds and Daugaard to questions about EB-5 posed by some legislators.

What hasn’t been probed by GOAC are the events of 2003 through 2010 and especially starting in 2008. The Bollen-USCIS correspondence, written under the auspices of the South Dakota International Business Institute and the Department of Tourism and State Development, as well as the 2009 contract and the 2010 amendment to that contract (and the reasons for the amendment), will provide a complicated but eventually clear picture of what was happening.

The GOAC members meet at 9 a.m. and are scheduled to spend the morning half of their meeting on EB-5. To listen live via the Internet go here and click on the SDPB logo at the right side next to the GOAC listing. To read the Aberdeen American News version of the April news story based on those documents, go here.