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.

Rollie Chicoine, 1922-2016

Rollie Chicoine served 20 years in the Legislature. There have been 28 lawmakers who spent 20 to 24 years in the Capitol’s east and west wings, and 12 more who gave 25 to 30 years. No one served more than 30. The only current legislator among those 40 is Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Brandon, who’s seeking re-election this year. Services for Roland A. Chicoine, a farmer and a Democrat from the Jefferson and Elk Point area of Union County, are Wednesday.

He was born Dec. 10, 1922. He died Thursday. His time as a legislator spanned the coming of term limits. His 20 years came in three consecutive stints: 1981-86 in the House; 1987-92 in the Senate; and 1993-2000 back in the House.

His wife, Evelyn, and he married in 1945. They had eight children. One of the sons, David, recently moved to a faculty post at South Dakota State University after serving as the university’s president. Rollie ran track at what then was South Dakota State College before World War II. He was a leader in agriculture, 4-H, water development, the Elk Point community and his local Catholic Church.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard has asked that flags be lowered to half-staff Wednesday in his honor.

You can get a sampling of Rollie Chicoine’s politics from the legislation he sponsored. In the 1997 session, for example, he sought to ban discriminatory pricing of drugs and prohibit hog farming operations from operating in South Dakota if they had committed major environmental violations.

The last bill on which he was prime sponsor, in 2000, called for the state Department of Revenue to conduct a study to use agricultural income value as the basis for charging taxes on agricultural property. Chicoine served on the interim legislative committee on tax assessments that recommended that bill. The House passed the bill, voting 58-2, but the Senate killed it.

The House had also passed a companion bill the same day, limiting the study to nine counties; Rep. Jim Lintz, R-Hill City, was its prime sponsor. It too was recommended by the interim committee, of which Lintz was a member. The Senate approved that bill, which also called for appointment of a task force by the governor. Both measures relied on SDSU’s agriculture economics faculty to develop data. Agricultural income value is the system now used in South Dakota. There were plenty of hard-head politics in those days, too, but the work by Chicoine and Lintz, and then-Rep. Kenneth McNenny, R-Sturgis, and then-Sen. Paul Symens, D-Amherst and others from both parties on the interim committee, showed big things got done, too.

Final ballot-measure decisions coming soon w/update

UPDATE: The secretary of state rejected on Tuesday afternoon the challenge to the validity of the 36 percent interest rate limit petitions.

South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs said Monday she and her staff have two ballot measure challenges left. “We are still working through but we will have an answer by the end of this week on both of them,” she told the state Board of Elections.

One is the medical marijuana proposal, which Krebs initially rejected as lacking sufficient valid signatures of South Dakota registered voters. The other is a proposed rate limit of 36 percent for payday loans, which Krebs determined had sufficient signatures but an opponent challenged.

Last week, she ruled in favor of a proposed rate limit of 18 percent for payday loans. The proposal is worded so that the 18 percent would take effect only if the loan agreement wasn’t in writing, meaning payday loans generally wouldn’t be subject to the limit.

The two sides on the payday loan issue challenged each other’s petitions. The secretary of state’s decisions aren’t necessarily the final word. She confirmed the 18 percent question could still be challenged in state circuit court.

In her ruling she didn’t decide a major point made by the challenger, Cory Heidelberger of Aberdeen, who is part of the group pushing the 36 percent limit. Whether that is pursued in circuit court isn’t known yet.

Krebs said “any individual” could file a challenge in circuit court. “Even if they weren’t the challenger,” she said.

There isn’t a firm deadline for filing a circuit-court challenge, but state law requires the secretary of state to certify statewide ballot questions to county auditors no later than Aug. 16.

Krebs said legislation approved in 2015 would have established a formal timeline for settling ballot-measure disputes. But Republican lawmakers rolled other election-process changes into the legislation and opponents referred the legislation to a statewide vote.

One of the people who led the referral effort was Heidelberger. Their complaints dealt with other parts of the bill, SB 69. One set of provisions made more difficult the withdrawal of candidates and their replacement, a technique often used in legislative contests, especially by Democrats. The legislation was placed on hold until voters could decide its fate in the 2016 general election this November.

The 2016 legislative session evidently didn’t produce any measures sufficently controversial for a referral attempt. Krebs said Monday she hadn’t heard “any indication” of anyone planning a referendum petition this year.

At this point there are 10 ballot measures set for the November election, including the 36 percent ban on which Krebs hasn’t made a final decision, and excluding the medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, neither side is satisfied with the ballot-measure explanation for the 18 percent payday limit and the title for it on the ballot.

Attorney General Marty Jackley wrote the ballot explanation for the 18 percent proposal, and its supporters sued him, unsuccessfully.

Krebs said he approved the title for the measure that would appear on the ballot.

Linda Lea Viken, a state Board of Elections member from Rapid City, told Krebs on Monday the title “was very misleading to the public.”

The disagreements over the explanation and the title, as well as his explanation on another ballot measure dealing with the Board of Regents and technical institutes, could prompt a review of whether changes could improve the process and role required in law for the attorney general, who currently is in somewhat of a powerful but simultaneously no-win position as the arbiter. The only appeal is to court.

Republican group received Brohm tour w/update

While attending the state Board of Minerals and Environment meeting Thursday, this scrivener had a “hmm” moment.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources provided a tour of the Brohm mine — a federal Superfund site —  one day last October to a Republican legislative caucus.

It’s good for legislators to see the place, because South Dakota shall forever be saddled with it, at least until some developer finds some other purpose for its acid rock-plagued site in Lawrence County.

Every taxpayer should see it if that could somehow be arranged.

The Republican legislators’ tour came one day after the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations visited the mine.

State government agencies accommodate legislators when possible. Being responsive to the people who make South Dakota’s laws and oversee state government’s budget is smart and appropriate. Regardless of political party, every legislator was elected by the voters in her or his district.

UPDATE: Rep. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, said he arranged the Brohm tour as part of events he hosted at his Black Hills cabin last fall. Schoenbeck said he also coordinated a tour for Republican legislators to see a bighorn sheep group.

No state income tax = no trust?

Pat Costello, commissioner for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said efforts to recruit workers to South Dakota have met an unexpected hiccup.

The lack of a state income tax causes people from income-tax states to question why South Dakota doesn’t have one and what they would have to give up if they move to South Dakota, he said.

The other wall is that South Dakota has a great reputation as a tourist destination but that is counter-productive to recruiting workers, he said.

So the focus at GOED right now is the “You can live here” theme, he told members of the Legislative Planning Committee on Tuesday.

Legislators want answers on rail line

The Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee plans to call various parties to a future meeting to talk about conditions of the state-owned railroad line west of Mitchell. This year the state Railroad Board adopted a new practice of sending teams of its members to look at various state-owned lines. The group that reviewed the line west of Mitchell found maintenance below par. The contractor leasing the line is Dakota Southern. The company also played a significant part in rehabilitating the line and is responsible for its ongoing condition. State Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist, a Dakota Southern representative and a Railroad Board member will be asked to meet with GOAC members later this year, state Sen. Larry Tidemann, R-Brookings, said Tuesday morning. Tidemann is the committee’s chairman. GOAC’s involvement adds another set of teeth.

Another year, another remodel

Frankly, I didn’t meet a legislator last winter who liked the new layouts of the remodeled meetings rooms for the Joint Committee on Appropriations on the Capitol’s third floor. Guess what? A year after the 2015 remodeling job, the Legislature’s Executive Board gave the go-ahead Monday to another remodel.

This time, the main room will become longer and the secondary room will become smaller. So small that it won’t work as a committee hearing room any longer. A conference table for eight people, and perhaps eight spectators along the walls, will fit in the second room.

Evidently the old accordion-style sliding door that separated the two rooms wasn’t acceptable any longer, because it couldn’t hold big-screen TVs for presentations. That’s why it was removed during the 2015 remodel. Now there’s a permanent wall — except it’s not all that permanent, because it’s going to be taken down and pushed deeper into the second room as part of the 2016 remodel.

The other choice was to go wider and take over the hallway outside the big meeting room. That hallway serves as a public lobby and gathering place. It has the big, wonderful half-moon window (the one you can find in photos in the state’s Blue Books from 30 to 40 years ago when the attorney general’s office was in that space).

Sen. David Omdahl, R-Sioux Falls, might be retiring from the Legislature but it isn’t because he doesn’t know how to read people. “I think there’d be a lot of pushback if we were to cover that window off,” he said.

The Legislature’s Executive Board voted 10-3 to allow the 2016 remodel to proceed. Annie Mehlhalf, the Legislature’s chief fiscal analyst, said there isn’t a cost estimate for either version of the project because the state Bureau of Administration will handle it. (Seriously. Wait until some fiscally conservative legislators call for a fiscal note on this one.)

The three who voted no were Senate Republican leader Corey Brown of Gettysburg, Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton of Burke and House Speaker Dean Wink, R-Howes. Wink liked the wider plan that would have taken away the public space in the hallway. Sutton noted the Senate Democrats will need different space to caucus if the smaller committee room becomes smaller yet.

The handsome new desk set in the smaller room also would need to be moved. It might go to a Senate committee room (423). That would mean, under the Legislature’s equal treatment approach, a House committee room (468) could get a new desk set too. Maybe the Legislature will revert the $140,000 of estimated budget surplus at the June 30 end of this fiscal year.


GOED’s Cerney stepping down

Mary Cerney will be one month shy of 30 years with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development when she retires as director of research on July 8. She began work there as a writer and researcher in 1986 and became research director in 2005 leading a four-person team. She said her plans for the future entail service work “and giving back.”

Commissioner Pat Costello informed the Board of Economic Development about the change during its meeting Tuesday. Costello said a reorganization is being considered regarding duties for two of the directors. Steve Watson is director for community and business development. His staff of seven includes six business representatives who work throughout South Dakota. Costello said the community component, which currently has one staff member, might be added to the research division.

The strength of Jim Abbott

Their lives together began with a blind date. Colette and Jim Abbott married in 1987. One week ago, on May 4, Colette died suddenly from a complication related to her recently diagnosed cancer. Jim, the president of the University of South Dakota, held his emotions together, going through the university’s graduation ceremony last weekend and a memorial service for Colette Monday.

A lawyer, he served in the state House of Representatives for one term in 1991-92. He ran for the state Senate seat in 1992 against Bernie Hunhoff in a Democratic primary; Hunhoff won by seven votes in a recount. Abbott challenged in court because 19 votes cast by 18 Republicans and one independent weren’t counted. Eventually the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled against Abbott.

In 1994 the Democratic nominee for governor, Jim Beddow, the president of Dakota Wesleyan University at Mitchell, selected Jim Abbott as his running mate. They didn’t win, but their proposal to reduce property taxes by 30 percent prompted Republican nominee Bill Janklow to promise to do the same. Janklow carried through.

In 1996 Jim Abbott ran for the Democratic nomination for South Dakota’s one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He placed second in a big field. Rick Weiland, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, won through the use of a photograph. The photo showed Weiland and Daschle together. It helped swing votes Weiland’s way. Weiland later lost to Republican newcomer John Thune.

The retirement of Betty Turner Asher as USD’s president led Janklow to suggest Jim Abbott be USD’s new president. The state Board of Regents hired Jim in 1997. In 2002, he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, winning a three-way primary. That same June day, former state Sen. Mike Rounds won the Republican nomination in a three-way primary. Abbott said afterward he knew that night he couldn’t win the general election against Rounds, who received the nomination by staying clear of the feud between Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby.

Today, Thune and Rounds hold South Dakota’s two seats in the U.S. Senate. Thune defeated Daschle in 2004. (Hunhoff lost to Janklow in 1998.)

Jim returned from his leave of absence after the 2002 campaign and has remained USD’s president since then. Now 67, he is the longest-serving president in South Dakota’s system of public universities. The campus and its programs are stronger than ever. He’s given his all to a place he loves, the place where he earned his degrees and where Colette earned hers. They were USD.

South Dakota among worst states for teen drivers

A network of automobile insurance companies run a joint website known as and South Dakota doesn’t fare well in its latest rankings for safety of teen drivers.

South Dakota sits at fourth-worst. Montana is last, with North Dakota and Louisiana between. The next seven states, from No. 46 through No. 41, are Mississippi, Missouri, Wyoming, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Iowa. Some intriguing regional patterns in that mix!

The insurance companies involved in the rankings make the case for stronger graduated driver licensing laws. They cite national statistics supporting that argument. South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Montana and Arkansas are judged in the rankings to have the potential to benefit the most from a stronger GDL system.

Drunk-driving by teens doesn’t pop up as a problem in South Dakota as much as other states. The five worst are Montana, Arkansas, District of Columbia, North Dakota and Texas at 11 percent or more. The percentage is for teens 16 and older who reported drinking and driving. South Dakota was far down the list at 7 percent.

Then there’s texting and driving. South Dakota leads the ranking as the worst state for this practice among teen drivers. Again, relying on reported activities by drivers 16 and older, South Dakota led all states with 61 percent. North Dakota was second-worst at 59 percent, followed by Montana at 56, Wyoming at 51 and Oklahoma at 51.

You can read the report here. And you have to wonder where South Dakota would be if age 14 and 15 drivers participated in the surveys.

Republicans extend lead in voters

The May voter-registration totals for South Dakota showed a strong gain for Republicans during the month of April. Republicans climbed 1,099 to 241,622. Overall, they have gained approximately 4,000 registered voters since early January 2016.

Democrats increased somewhat during April, gaining 75 and reaching 167,336. This is the second consecutive month they’ve gained. The last time was in fall 2014, when Democrats went up four months in a row leading into the general election.

But the numbers speak for themselves — 1,099 more Republicans and 75 more Democrats — during April. And the surge by independents and no-party voters leveled somewhat. Their column increased by 519, reaching 109,025 as of the May 2 statewide totaling. Two other groups of registered voters slipped slightly. Constitutionalists dipped by nine to 506, while the “other” column lost four to 2,147.

The long trend remains troubling for Democrats. The 2008 general election registrations were 241,528 Republicans; 204,413 Democrats; and 83,147 all others. The 37,000-voter lead that Republicans enjoyed over Democrats as recently as eight years ago today is twice as large at approximately 74,000. That’s a gain of approximately 37,000. The increases in the “other” column come to about 28,500 since November 2008. They don’t offset the Democrats’ loss. Republicans clearly are the political party on the move in 2016 and for much of the past eight years.