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.

Valley Queen disputes Otter Tail’s pricing

The state Public Utilities Commission never seems to have a dull day of late. The latest dispute to land in the laps of commissioners Chris Nelson, Kristie Fiegen and Gary Hanson is a complaint from Valley Queen Cheese. Lawyers for the Milbank company claim that Otter Tail Power owes $1.4 million in damages covering the period of 2009 through 2014 because the utility didn’t provide the lowest possible rates as required. It’s complicated. You can read the complaint here.

Cosmetology commission gets new members

Gov. Dennis Daugaard appointed Laurie Brandner of Pierre and Crystal Carlson of Beresford to the state Cosmetology Commission. Carlson succeeds Nora Slykhuis of Custer. The terms for Brandner and Carlson run until April 15, 2018, as does the latest term for vice president Lois Berreth of Artas. The current term of President Tammy Ugofsky of Yankton runs until April 14, 2016, while the current term of Lori Little of Spearfish continues until April 14, 2017.

Other state panels receiving new members by gubernatorial appointment include:

Kyle White of Rapid City was named to the state Transportation Commission, succeeding Ed Seljeskog of Rapid City. The governor also reappointed Ralph Marquardt of Yankton;

Eric Abrahamson of Rapid City succeeds Fee Jacobsen of Pierre on the South Dakota Humanities Council, and Katie Hunhoff of Yankton succeeds Rebecca Schenk of Pierre; and

Molly Hall-Martin of Pierre replaces Clint Waara of Sioux Falls on the Hagen-Harvey Memorial Scholarship Board.

The governor also reappointed two members of the state Board of Regents. They are president Randy Schaefer of Madison and Kevin Schieffer of Sioux Falls. Their new terms run until March 31, 2021.

More on the Idaho connection…

In addition to Jason Hancock, the executive director for the Legislative Research Council hired last year from Idaho, and Michael Rush, who starts June 29 the new executive director for the state Board of Regents chosen Monday from idaho, an alert reader points out this morning there are three more recent connections between Idaho and South Dakota regarding top personnel in the two states’ university systems. They are:

Chuck Ruch, who had retired in idaho as president of Boise State University and was hired in 2003 as the president for the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where he spent five years;

Bob Wharton, who succeeded Ruch in 2008, came from Idaho State University, where he was provost and vice president of academic affairs. He died in 2012 while still president at SDSMT; and

Chuck Staben, who was provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of South Dakota, was hired as president for the University of Idaho in 2014.

SDHSAA seeks new assistant exec. dir.

James Weaver has accepted a position with the Sioux Falls school district as fine arts coordinator, according to Wayne Carney, executive director for the South Dakota High School Activities Association. Consequently the association is seeking a new assistant executive director for administration of fine arts activities, as well as other duties that he handled. Applications must be postmarked no later than May 27. The screening committee will conduct its work before June 2. The recommendation for hiring will be made at the June 10 meeting of the association’s board of directors.

Interim study panels are taking shape

The Legislature’s Executive Board considered which lawmakers Monday to appoint to the two interim committees. Each panel would have 11 members, according to the board’s chairman, Rep. Dean Wink, R-Howes, because that’s how many are in the budget.

Rep. Fred Romkema, R-Spearfish, headed a subcommittee of the board to nominate legislators for the panels.

The county-government study members suggested are representatives Kristin Conzet, R-Rapid City, Mary Duvall, R-Pierre, Dennis Feickert, D-Aberdeen; Leslie Heinemann, R-Flandreau; Joshua Klumb, R-Mount Vernon; Elizabeth May, R-Kyle; and Jim Schaefer, R-Kennebec; and senators Bob Ewing, R-Spearfish; Deb Peters, R-Hartford; Jim Peterson, D-Revillo; and Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell. Conzet will chair it and the vice chair is Ewing.

The high school activities association panel members suggested are representatives Julie Bartling, D-Gregory; Jim Bolin, R-Canton; Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City; Roger Hunt, R-Brandon; Kris Langer, R-Dell Rapids; Tona Rozum, R-Mitchell, and Kyle Schoenfish, R-Scotland; and senators Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, Larry Tidemann, R-Brookings; Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City; and Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall. Tieszen was proposed as chair and Bolin as vice chair.

Gosch, the House Republican leader, asked the board to delay its decisions until all of the nominees could be contacted to see whether they are still interested. Gosch said he was previously interested but now knows he can’t serve. Hunt agreed: “I think we have some time.” The board’s next scheduled meeting is June 9 in Sioux Falls. The board delayed the decisions until then regarding members, chairs and vice chairs. The ratio of House members to Senate members also might be reconsidered.

Law enforcement expenses would top the list of county-government topics, according to Bob Wilcox, executive director for the South Dakota County Commissioners Association. County officials are looking for additional sources of revenue to meet costs rising faster than their property-tax bases.

The Idaho connection

The decision by the state Board of Regents to select Michael Rush as the executive director for South Dakota’s public universities system today marks the second major leader brought to our state from Idaho. Jason Hancock was selected in June as the Legislative Research Council’s executive director. Hancock had been deputy chief of staff for the Idaho Department of Education. Rush takes the reins for the Board of Regents officially on June 29, succeeding Jack Warner, who’s retiring and returning to Rhode Island. Rush is executive director for the Idaho Board of Education and Board of Regents. His portfolio also includes community colleges and public television in Idaho. South Dakota uses a split approach, with the regents governing the public universities, the state Board of Education overseeing K-12 and the four public technical institutes and the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, a part of the governor’s cabinet, in charge of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Lawyer asked for limits regarding pipeline case

The state Public Utilities Commission is in uncommon territory of late with the process of certifying the construction permit already held by TransCanada for the proposed Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline from Alberta and the process of considering the application for a construction permit for the proposed Dakota Access oil pipeline from North Dakota. By uncommon territory I mean the cross-currents of motions and replies by the many interveners in each docket. On the KXL, the commission granted the permit in 2010; now, because the project hasn’t commenced, state law requires the commission consider after four years whether the permit conditions will still be met. The interveners, many of whom didn’t fight against the original permit, are trying to use the certification process to block it. The Dakota Access proposal is new, and the interveners seem to want to stop it too.

We’ve seen the commission already get jammed up on procedures in the Keystone XL docket and found itself forced to reschedule the hearing that was supposed to occur last week. Now the hearing will come in late July. The lawyers for TransCanada have appeared to show varying degrees of cooperation with requests from interveners for information. The same small drama is playing out now with Dakota Access. On Tuesday, a lawyer for Dakota Access, Brett Koenecke of Pierre, asked the commission to stop allowing other lawyers and interveners from arguing their cases to the commission by telephone during the commission meetings.

“I think it would add a lot of genuine character to the entire proceeding,” Koenecke said. He hoped to achieve more face to face interaction. Replied commissioner Gary Hanson: “It surprises me you ask for it.” Hanson said he thinks there is an advantage to a party who is present. Koenecke responded that he didn’t expect the commission to grant the request. “There’s been nothing impolite. It’s been something I’m not used to in front of the commission,” Koenecke explained. The commission turned down the request.

A term-limit upheaval on the horizon

Because of the restrictions set in the state Constitution by voters in 1992, there are 14 current members of the state House of Representatives who will be ineligible to seek re-election to a fifth consecutive term in the House in the 2016 elections. There are four current members of the Senate who likewise are term-limited in 2016.

Can you say “demolition derby”?

It’s unknown how many of the 14 House members will run for seats in the Senate. The only swaps that might be relatively simple are Republican Justin Cronin of Gettysburg seeking the Senate seat now held by Republican Corey Brown of Gettysburg, and Democrat Kevin Killer of Pine Ridge seeking the Senate seat now held by Democrat Jim Bradford of Pine Ridge. Those four are all term-limited in districts where voter registration favors their respective political parties.

The two other term-limited senators are Republicans Mike Vehle of Mitchell and Craig Tieszen of Rapid City. Neither has a term-limited House member in his district. Vehle’s House mates in District 20 are Republicans Tona Rozum of Mitchell and Joshua Klumb of Mount Vernon. Tieszen’s House mates in District 34 are Republicans Dan Dryden of Rapid City and Jeff Partridge of Rapid City. Generally Klumb and Partridge, who are in their first terms and are a generation younger, would be considered more conservative on many matters than Rozum and Dryden.

The 12 other term-limited representatives are:

Jim Bolin, R-Canton, from District 16, where the governor just passed over Bolin and named Bill Shorma, R-Dakota Dunes, to fill the vacancy created by the March 30 resignation of Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes;

Dennis Feickert, D-Aberdeen, from District 1, where the Senate incumbent is Democrat Jason Frerichs of Wilmot;

Peggy Gibson, D-Huron, from District 22, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Jim White of Huron (who was just elected in the Senate Republicans’ secret caucus as the chamber’s Republican assistant leader, succeeding Lederman in that role);

Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, from District 32, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Alan Solano of Rapid City. Gosch is the House Republican leader currently and was House speaker for the 2013-2014 sessions. Gosch and Brown are ears-deep in a feud between their two chambers, seen vividly in the highway and bridge funding legislation that the House seized at the end of the 2015 session, leading to Gosch’s 80 mph speed limit for the two interstates, in what otherwise was a tax and fees measure;

Patrick Kirschman, D-Sioux Falls, from District 15, where the Senate incumbent is Democrat Angie Buhl O’Donnell of Sioux Falls;

Fred Romkema, R-Spearfish, from District 31, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Bob Ewing of Spearfish, who defeated incumbent Tom Nelson two election cycles ago in a Republican primary;

Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, and Mike Verchio, R-Hill City, from District 30, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Bruce Rampelberg of Rapid City;

Dean Schrempp, D-Lantry, from District 28, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Betty Olson of Prairie City. Schrempp represents subdistrict 28A, which is tilted more Democratic in voter registration as the result of American Indian voting-rights reasons;

Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, from District 33, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Phil Jensen of Rapid City;

Roger Solum, R-Watertown, from District 5, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Ried Holien of Watertown; and

Dean Wink, R-Howes, from District 29, where the Senate incumbent is Republican Gary Cammack of Union Center.

Wink is the House speaker for the 2015-2016 term. On Saturday, Cammack was elected as the Republican nominee for Senate president pro tem for the 2016 session. The post becomes open because Brown, who has been Senate president pro tem, moved over to Senate Republican leader to replace Tim Rave of Baltic in that role. Rave resigned from the Senate for professional reasons on March 31.

Why call this a demolition derby? There are plenty of Senate Republicans who reportedly preferred Holien as the next president pro tem and reportedly wanted Brock Greenfield of Clark as the next Republican assistant leader, rather than Cammack and White.

All sides are looking ahead to the 2016 elections to see which House Republicans attempt to move into the Senate by challenging Republican incumbents. The June 2016 primaries could say a lot about who runs the Senate in the 2017-2018 sessions.

The plotting already is under way from many directions. In the meantime, the 2016 session could be a poisonous environment, politically.

Solid senators win GOP leadership spots

There was an inevitability to Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, becoming the state Senate’s new Republican leader Saturday in the caucus elections. He has been the Senate president pro tem, the highest-ranking senator in the chamber. The resignations by Senate Republican assistant leader Dan Lederman of Dakota Dunes on the final day of the 2015 session March 30 for personal reasons, followed the next day by Senate Republican leader Tim Rave of Baltic for a major promotion as a Sanford Health executive, left two big gaps. The governor chose their successors, Bill Shorma of Dakota Dunes to the Lederman vacancy and Scott Fiegen of Dell Rapids to the Rave spot, prior to the caucus elections. Brown and Rave had worked shoulder to shoulder in the past few years, so there wasn’t any true challenge to Brown sliding over to the majority leader’s role for his final session before term limits force him out after 2016.

That left the assistant leader’s vacancy. Senate caucus elections are held in secret, and the agreement is the senators don’t publicly announce who didn’t win or the vote tallies. The announcement Saturday that the new assistant leader is Jim White of Huron made sense. White, who doesn’t look like he’s 70, is serving his third term in the Legislature and his second term in the Senate. A retired banker who grew up in the Oakes, N.D., area, he has shown himself to be a solid, common-sense lawmaker who’s never seemed concerned about his own publicity or drawing attention to himself.

The move by Brown opened a new contest for Senate president pro tem. The Republican caucus chose another solid, common-sense lawmaker in Sen. Gary Cammack of Union Center. Technically, he won’t get the post until the first day of the 2016 session, because it’s a decision for the full 35-member Senate. But Republicans hold 27 seats, so in effect he will be the No. 2 presiding officer behind the lieutenant governor under the state constitution. It seems likely that Cammack could continue as president pro tem in the 2017-2018 term, provided he’s re-elected in a district where ousting a Republican incumbent seems highly unlikely. Cammack’s record as chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee during the 2015 session suggests he has the intelligence and the courteous but procedural demeanor that are desirable for the president pro tem’s spot. If he continues in the slot for the 2017 session, Cammack will have the authority to name the committee members, the committee chairs and vice chairs and the seating arrangements. A businessman who runs a major supply center for ranches, Cammack, 61, served one term in the House before winning election to the Senate unopposed last November.

Cammack’s selection as president pro tem immediately puts him into line for a position of authority on the Legislature’s Executive Board. As president pro tem, under the Legislature’s rotating leadership arrangement for the board, Cammack becomes the board’s chairman for 2016. The president pro tem is chairman in even-numbered years; the speaker of the House is chairman in odd-numbered years. The current speaker is Rep. Dean Wink, R-Howes. And here’s the kicker: Wink and Cammack serve from the same legislative area, District 29. It’s the same general area that produced some of the Legislature’s leaders in recent decades, such as Larry Rhoden of Union Center, Eric Bogue of Faith and Larry Gabriel of Cottonwood.

South Dakota worker wins important case

The South Dakota Supreme Court, in a decision that was unanimous and written by Chief Justice David Gilbertson, has overruled an administrative law judge and a circuit judge in the worker compensation case of a Sioux Falls woman. Patricia Wheeler had been working three jobs when she was injured at one of them, the Cinnabon at the Empire Mall. She was unable to keep working at her other jobs at Westside Casino and a convenience store in Sioux Falls. Wheeler was granted worker compensation based only on her Cinnabon earnings; her lawyers contended the Cinnabon injury kept her from working at all and the earnings from her other jobs should be part of the calculation as well. Wrote Chief Justice Gilbertson:

The definition of “earnings” in SDCL 62-1-1(6) is ambiguous. We,
therefore, interpret “earnings” in Wheeler’s favor. Because “earnings” is utilized to
calculate a worker’s AWW, we hold that SDCL 62-4-24, SDCL 62-4-25, and SDCL
62-4-26 allow for the aggregation of wages when an injury at one employment
renders the worker incapable of performing that employee’s other concurrently held

To read the full decision released Thursday in Wheeler go here.