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.

Supreme Court: ‘We recognize this is a harsh result’

In December the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a circuit judge’s decision that two of the charges for which Brandon Taliaferro was arrested couldn’t be expunged from his record, even though the charges were dismissed. Taliaferro was the Brown County deputy prosecutor who wound up being indicted in 2012 on allegations of witness tampering, involvement in perjury, unauthorized disclosure of abuse and neglect information and obstructing law enforcement, in relation to his professional work regarding a sex-abuse case involving minors. One charge was dropped and the other six were dismissed by Circuit Judge Gene Paul Kean. When Taliaferro later applied for the arrests to be expunged, Judge Kean said two of the arrests couldn’t be expunged because state law requires the prosecuting lawyer’s consent and that hadn’t been obtained for those two. Taliaferro appealed to the Supreme Court, and the justices there agreed Judge Kean had correctly applied the law and they said the law was “clear, certain and unambiguous.” The high court’s opinion concluded, “We recognize that this is a harsh result; nevertheless, the appropriate avenue for relief in this case is through the Legislature.”

And now the matter is before the Legislature, via Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen. He introduced House Bill 1134 on Wednesday. It would simply remove the portion of the expungement law requiring consent of the prosecuting attorney. Kaiser is a policeman and his record in the Legislature has tended to be one of protecting people’s personal liberties. His co-sponsors include two retired circuit judges, Rep. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, and Sen. Arthur Rusch, R-Vermillion, and two private attorneys, Rep. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, and Rep. Steven Haugaard, R-Sioux Falls.

The bill was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee; a hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet. The Tailaferro indictment looked, from the outside, to have been a strange chapter in law enforcement in South Dakota. Now the matter and the actions of the various sides will receive further light, to a degree they previously hadn’t, before the Legislature.

My story will be wrong in at least one of the papers

I misunderstood the purpose of Rep. G. Mark Mickelson’s proposed constitutional amendment when I first wrote about it Wednesday for the Thursday newspapers. I was alerted to the error this evening and sent a corrected version. However it was too late to fix in at least one paper, the Yankton Press and Dakotan, because that paper had gone to press early Wednesday night. The proposed amendment is intended to prohibit the Board of Regents from taking management of the four public technical institutes. I misunderstood it, originally, and thought it was to place the institutes under the regents. I apologize in advance for the error wherever it is printed.

Legislators seek a presidential pardon… (updated)

…not for themselves, of course. Perhaps this has been attempted in the past but none comes to mind. Today Rep. Mike Verchio, R-Hill City, introduced House Joint Resolution 1002 that would cause a formal application to President Barack Obama that he grant a presidential pardon to Peter Larson of Hill City. You can read HJR 1002 here. Larson is head of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, which engages in locating and recovering fossils. Larson was on the group that found the Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that became known as Sue. He later went to federal prison for customs violations involving currency and spent 18 months incarcerated. Larson continues work as a paleontologist. (Note: Some information in the original post about this was inaccurate and has been corrected as more information became available this morning.)

The raw-milk debate, again (w/ 1/27 update)

The Legislature gets raw milk for human consumption set before it again today, with the state Department of Agriculture’s legislation that proposes designating raw milk clearly apart from manufacturing-grade milk and grade A milk in South Dakota. The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources considers Senate Bill 45 at a 10 a.m. CST hearing today. The legislation appears to do three main things:

1) Create a definition of manufacturing-grade milk different than raw milk for human consumption;

2) Require that raw milk for human consumption can be sold at the farm where it’s produced or delivered from that farm to purchasers, while prohibiting its sale elsewhere including farmer’s markets; and

3) Requiring a license for producers of raw milk for human consumption and setting a $50 licensing fee, which would the least-expensive of any dairy licenses and would be one-fifth of the fee for a traditional producer of less than 100,000 pounds of milk or cheese.

The Daugaard administration’s position on raw milk for human consumption has gradually shifted during the past five years. State Health Secretary Doneen Hollingsworth opposed legal sales of raw milk. She retired in December. Meanwhile, the state Agriculture Department struggled through rounds of rules hearings trying to find middle ground, under pressure from Dakota Rural Action and various individual producers and consumers. Raw-milk advocates gained ground within the Legislature’s ranks in recent years. Senate Bill 45 represents the attempt by Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch to recognize raw milk as a legitimate piece of South Dakota farm production.

1/27 UPDATE: The Senate committee amended the bill to allow pre-arranged deliveries at farmer’s markets of pre-purchased milk, then endorsed the bill for passage on a 7-2 vote. The full Senate could debate the bill on Thursday afternoon at the earliest.

Where’s the governor’s highway and bridge bill? (w / 1/27 update)

We’re told that Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Friday submitted his proposal for raising more revenue for highways and bridges. He did so in the House of Representatives. So far we haven’t seen the actual legislation surface. Perhaps today? Senate Bill 1, the package from the Legislature’s interim committee, will move forward in the Senate, while the governor’s smaller package will proceed from the House. Then the negotiations begin. There are plenty of nays in both chambers to both proposals. A third proposal hasn’t made its way into the light of day yet.

1/27 UPDATE: The governor’s bill is now officially numbered. It is HB 1131. You can read it here.

State debt-collection office is proposed w/1-27 update

The agenda for Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Senate Commerce and Energy Committee wasn’t posted yet as of early this Monday morning, but the unofficial word is the panel will hold a hearing Tuesday on the state Revenue Department’s proposal to start a state debt-collection office. This would be for collection of money owed to state government. Each month the state Board of Finance approves write-offs in the thousands of dollars for state agencies and state universities; in December, for example, the amounts were $1,505.60 for Black Hills State University and $7,426.73 for the state Department of Agriculture. These monthly write-offs are amounts where collections have been attempted through state and private avenues and efforts appear to be exhausted.

The state Bureau of Administration currently contracts with a Minnesota-based company, The Affiliated Group, for debt-collection services. The latest one-year contract runs through Feb. 28, 2015. The company receives 15 percent or 22.5 percent of the amount collected, unless there is litigation. Senate Bill 59 would move those types of services within state government to be conducted by state employees assigned specifically to the work.

Revenue Secretary Andy Gerlach contracted with CGI of Fairfax, Virginia, to analyze state government’s situation and make recommendation. So far CGI has been paid $49,000. The proposal pending in the Legislature is built on CGI’s analysis. One feature is a 20 percent surcharge on the debt. In other words, if you owe state government one dollar and aren’t paying, the legislation would call for state government to collect one dollar and twenty cents. The legislation currently would authorize a list of 16 activities which the Revenue Department could use to get the money owed.The office would operate on the 20 percent recovery fee.

Primarily the collection office would serve the agencies and departments under the governor’s direct control, but the legislation allows for the Unified Judicial System, the state Board of Regents (state universities) and other constitutional officers to use the collection office too. One method that will be used is administrative wage assignment, where state government contacts an employer of a person who owes a debt to state government, and a portion of the employee’s wages are diverted by the employer to state government toward debt payment. Another method that will be used is administrative bank levies where state government uses information from banks about deposits and accounts to seize money from debtors.

The hammer contained in the proposed law would prohibit state government from renewing or issuing hunting or fishing licenses; any registration for a motor vehicle, motorcycle or boat; or any professional license, certification, registration or permit. And if none of that works, the collection office would still refer any debt to a private collection agency.

1/27 UPDATE: The Senate Commerce Committee isn’t meeting today. An agenda wasn’t posted in time. The bill now is scheduled for hearing Thursday. Also, Revenue Secretary Gerlach met Monday with lobbyists representing various interested parties. A significant objection facing this legislation is state government competing with private collection companies. A significant argument supporting this legislation is state government seeks to recover more. Because the program would be self-funded, there likely would need to be continuous appropriation authority and therefore the legislation likely would need a two-thirds majority in each chamber to pass.

Sooooo… how sloooow is 2015 session?

A House Republican legislator walked past Friday morning and offered, “It is slow.” He was referring to the pace of South Dakota’s 2015 session so far. Friday marked day 8 of the session, which has 39 working days. The lawmaker’s comment seems to be a common perception. So let’s take a look at the work so far:

In the House, as of Friday, there are 88 bills introduced. Last year, House bill No. 1088 was introduced on Jan. 23. That was day 7 of the session. Through day 8 last year, there were 104 bills introduced. Those numbers show the 2015 session’s pace in the House is 16 bills behind last year.

This is the first year of a two-term for new legislators. So the better comparison might be between 2015 and 2013. In the House in the 2013 session, bill No. 1088 was introduced on Jan. 17, which was day 7 of the session. On day 8, the House had 108 bills introduced.

So the House as of Friday was behind the pace of the past two years by 16 and 20 bills.

In the Senate, as of Friday, there are 87 bills introduced. Last year, Senate bill No. 87 was introduced on Jan. 24. That was day 8 of the 2014 session. On day 8 last year, the Senate had 88 bills. So the Senate’s pace this year generally is on track with last year.

A comparison of the Senate in 2015 and 2013 shows the current pace is behind. In 2013, Senate bill No. 87 was introduced on Jan. 17, which was day 7 of the session. On day 8 of the 2013 session, 110 Senate bills had been introduced.

So the Senate as of Friday was slightly behind the 2014 pace and 23 bills behind the 2013 pace.

Overall, the 2014 session saw 261 House bills and 188 Senate bills. The 2013 session saw 250 House bills and 242 Senate bills.

Two variables year to year are the numbers of bills introduced on behalf of state officers, agencies, departments, boards and commissions, and the numbers of bills introduced by legislative interim committees and task forces.

That analysis requires more date digging than permissible on a Saturday morning with only one cup of coffee complete.

Nor does more bills automatically equate to better legislating.

In conclusion, a final anecdote: A Republican senator told me Thursday that approximately 500 bill drafts were still afloat and hadn’t been introduced yet. He said approximately 440 were in the hands of legislators who were circulating them for signatures from other legislators as co-sponsors. It’s unknown how many will be actually introduced. The other 60 were in proof-reading or fine-tuning.

We will see if the blizzard arrives.

Taking pains regarding grains — and other crops

The state Public Utilities Commission, because its regulatory breadth includes grain warehouses, oversees some legal protections for crop producers. The commission has two such pieces of legislation this winter that get a hearing Tuesday by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The panel, chaired by Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte, will consider a simple measure, House Bill 1040, that would add pulse crops to the list covered under fraud in the uniform commercial code; already covered are grain, grain sorghums, beans and oil seeds. The PUC’s other proposal on this general topic, House Bill 1039, revisits the topic of voluntary credit sales. The legislation would specify that written agreements have settlement dates and that they meet the contract requirements already in place elsewhere in state law. HB 1039 also would broaden the definition of a subsidiary for warehouse licensing purposes. The legislation would remove the reference to “wholly owned” and simply refer to subsidiary.

Clean-up underway on Capitol’s second floor

Evidently a backlog of governor’s appointments and reappointments to state boards and commission built up in the South Dakota Secretary of State office during the final months of its previous administration.

The latest weekly LRC Register, published Wednesday, shows a burst of 36 appointments and reappointments. Twelve took effect Dec. 31. There were six Jan. 2; four Jan. 5; eight Jan. 12; one Jan. 13; and five Jan. 15.

These 36 were the first round of appointments and reappointments reported in the Register since the Nov. 10 edition.

Shantel Krebs took office as secretary of state Jan. 2 at 8 a.m. when state government reopened after the New Year holiday.

The most recent word is her staff processed approximately 1,300 pistol permits since then. Evidently a lot of public business had been left waiting for the new crew.

Krebs was elected Nov. 4 as the replacement for Jason Gant. Both are Republicans. Gant had decided against seeking a second term after Krebs filed her candidacy paperwork in late summer 2013.