Monthly Archives: November 2011

A surprise winner among the Corn Caucus

Our old friend Bill Even tipped us off to this nugget. Newt Gingrich, ladies and gentlemen, received straight As in all 10 categories rated by a group calling itself the Corn Caucus and officially known as the Iowa Corn Growers Association. That certainly can’t hurt the former Georgia congressman and U.S. House speaker with the Iowa caucuses just five weeks away on Jan. 3. The only other Republican candidate for president to come close was Rick Santorum, who missed a perfect 10 with a B on the topic of federal crop insurance and a C on the matter of conservation programs. Mitt Romney did OK with two As in free trade agreements and in energy and ethanol policy, but he received Bs in renewable fuel standard, ethanol infrastructure and EPA regulations and oversight, Cs in the ACRE revenue program and water infrastructure and ? marks in federal crop insurance, conservation programs and agriculture trade programs. Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann received two to six Fs, although Perry, Cain and Bachmann each had at least one A. As for President Barack Obama, the Democratic leader in chief posted four As, five Bs and one C (EPA regulations and oversight, of course).

A reader wonders: What’s 511 cost?

The safetravelusa.com service showing South Dakota’s highway conditions costs state DOT about $13,000 per month, according to state Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist. Motorists’ telephone calls to the 511 service run 4.5 cents per minute of use.  Secretary Bergquist said DOT spent about $234,000 on the combined services for the most recent 12-month period. He said that amount is typical of annual cost.

For Twins, addition by subtraction?

Watching Joe Nathan trying to hold it together the last few years was remindful of the fading boxer who has big money at stake in the Hemingway story “Fifty Grand.” Now that the Minnesota Twins have let Joe move on to a greener pasture to be the closer at Texas, the question arises what the Twins will do to fill his spot. If they had stuck with him, they very well might have been facing the same question come next May. So far, the only big moves the Twins have made are to hire some new utilitymen. That’s really all they can afford, given how much they’ve tied up in the contracts for Justin Morneau, who might never be even an average major-leaguer again, and for Joe Mauer, who has mysteriously turned into an expensive ghost. Bringing aboard Ryan Doumit, whose career has been marred by injuries, to play some first base behind Morneau and some catcher behind Mauer suggests the Twins see an uncertain future for their biggest names. As for Jamey Carroll, he fits the Twins mold of good glove and solid on-base bat, but the multi-purpose infielder/outfielder has been around 10 years in the majors. Ask your neighbors if they’ve ever heard of him. He turns 38 in February. With Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel possibly and likely gone via free agency, and Delmon Young already exited last season for a new start with the Tigers, the Twins have gone from an abundance of power hitting outfielders to one sort-of in Denard Span. The farm system looks thin. The starting pitching lacks a No. 5. The bullpen, once a source of strength, hasn’t been rebuilt. The question for 2012: Are the Twins more likely to win 90 games or lose 90 games? Baseball’s winter meetings commence in a few days. Next spring looks cold at the new stadium.

Gun points man toward prison

A Lower Brule man faces up to 10 years in federal prison after pointing a handgun at a woman during an argument and threatening to kill her if she should leave him. The incident last April has culminated in a guilty plea from John R. Estes II, age 35, last week before U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange. The crime is assault with a dangerous weapon. Estes will be sentenced Feb. 13, the eve of St. Valentine’s Day.

The Dec. 6-7 budget speech lineup

Gov. Dennis Daugaard delivers his fiscal 2013 budget proposal to the Legislature on Dec. 6 in a speech scheduled to begin at about 1 p.m. Central in the House of Representatives chamber. The Legislature’s Executive Board, Bonding Committee, Joint Committee on Appropriations and Government Operations and Audit Committee all have scheduled meetings either that day or the next. The Executive Board gathers at 10:30 on Dec. 6, then dissolves into the Bonding Committee to receive agency reports. The appropriators plan to assemble 15 minutes after the conclusion of the governor’s address. The operations and audit panel meets on Dec. 7 at 9 a.m. Taxable sales, as reported by the state Revenue Department, were up 6.2 percent for October in comparison to the same month in 2010. That follows a 1.9 percent decrease for September from the previous September, and a 1.7 percent year to year decrease for August. July showed a 3.4 percent gain. Those are difficult numbers on which to build a raise for state government employees, who haven’t seen a general increase in three years, or to provide more state aid to K-12 school districts or the state universities.

Prairie Winds SD 1 sets a record

Great Plains Ethanol, at $5,081,632.02, no longer is South Dakota’s top recipient of construction-tax refunds. The new holder of that distrinction is the Prairie Winds SD 1 wind farm constructed for Basin Electric in the Crow Lake area north of White Lake. The state Revenue Department’s quarterly report on the refund program shows that, through Sept. 30, the Prairie Winds development received back $6,041,123.57 of the taxes paid for its construction. The complex has 108 turbines. Prairie Winds SD 1 was one of two for-profit subsidiaries formed by the Basin Electric board of directors in 2008. The Crow Lake project was completed this year.

The case of the vanishing S.D. voters

The voter registration numbers updated through Nov. 1 show South Dakota going down. Republicans fell to 235,180, lowest since September 2010. Democrats dropped back under the 190,000 mark, dipping to 189,323 and falling below where they were for the 2006 general election. (And so much for the burst of new Democratic energy sparked by the Clinton-Obama primary of 2008 that helped pump D registration by more than 13,500 to .) Even independents felt the lash of auditors cleaning out their voter rolls, as their numbers declined to 87,246, wiping out their gains made since May.

UPDATE: In response to the Aldo question posed in the comments section, here’s a short version. County auditors in each odd-numbered year shall go through their active voter registration records and send an address-verification card to any registered voter who hasn’t voted in four years, hasn’t updated the voter’s registration information and hasn’t replied at least once to a confirmation mailing in the four previous years. That’s the first step. If there’s no reply, the voter is moved to an inactive registration status. If the voter who has been placed on the inactive list doesn’t vote by the second general election after the confirmation mailing, the registration is canceled.

KELO and TransCanada taxes

TransCanada can defend itself regarding whether the company made inflated claims about the taxes it would pay for its Keystone pipeline’s segment through South Dakota. But after reading the text of the KELO-TV story, which suggests TransCanada so far has paid only about one-third of the property taxes that the company supposedly claimed it would, I’m puzzled. The news story says TransCanada estimated it would pay $9 million. I looked back at the original application from TransCanada to the PUC, and I see a much smaller figure. To quote from page 54 of the application document:

“Sales taxes, land based taxes, and other taxation methods will be of greater economic significance to state and local revenues. Based on current tax rates, the Keystone pipeline after construction is estimated to generate approximately $6.5 million in tax revenues to the state in the first year.”

The next paragraph states:

“Keystone will pay ad valorem taxes to the local governments during the years of operation of the pipeline for the use of the corridor and associated pipeline facilities. The construction cost initially provides the basis for the pipeline system valuation assessment. With time, the assessment focuses on the pipeline facilities’ contribution to the system-wide income and depreciated value. Generally, the assessment decreases over time. However, ongoing revenues to the counties should be significant.”

So what happened?

According to the KELO story, the 10 counties through which the pipeline runs in South Dakota received $2.9 million in property taxes in 2010. That was the pipeline’s first year of operation. We would need to learn from the state Department of Revenue how the department conducted its assessment and whether there was a full assessment or a discounted assessment based on the months of actual operation. We also would need to learn whether TransCanada was able to build the South Dakota segment at a lower cost than TransCanada originally estimated and used as the basis for its $6.5 million tax in the April 2007 application. We also would need to learn from TransCanada whether the $6.5 million figure included all taxes in South Dakota or just property taxes aka ad valorem taxes.

One of the adjacent puzzles is why TransCanada didn’t receive a bigger tax refund under South Dakota’s system of rebating state taxes on large construction projects. Through Sept. 30 of this year, the state Department of Revenue reports that TransCanada received $2,711,662 n rebate under the program. That number was expected by some people to be much larger, based on the original $302 million estimated costs for the project. That raises another question: Did the company apply for the full rebate for which it was eligible, or did it back off amid the arguments in the Legislature over the rebate program and the fact that companies such as TransCanada qualified for the tax refunds whether or not the preferential treatment was necessary to attract the project?

Where some of the confusion might rest too is TransCanada’s estimated cost for the second pipeline, the XL, that was to be built through western and south-central South Dakota. That project is on hold while a new route through Nebraska is considered. The XL’s estimated cost, according to TransCanada’s 2009 application to the state Public Utilities Commission, was $921 million for the South Dakota segment. TransCanada estimated that if the XL had been in service in 2008, the property taxes for the XL line would have been in excess of $10 million (with a corresponding reduction of more than $5 million in state aid to school districts in those counties, a function of how South Dakota’s system of property taxes and state aid for schools is set up). However, as TransCanada noted in its application, South Dakota’s system for assessing agricultural land was set to change to a productivity approach, and therefore TransCanada didn’t submit in its 2009 application an estimate of taxes under the new system.

That change in South Dakota’s agricultural property assessment system also might play a role in the taxes paid in 2010 for the Keystone pipeline. There are many moving parts and the whole story appears to be unwritten yet.

About 17,000 school jobs weren’t cut

The Associated School Boards of South Dakota issued its report today about the effects of the budget cuts made by the Legislature this year in state aid to K-12 education. Among the school districts that responded, full-time job cuts totaled 465, including 266 teachers. For perspective, we went to the state Department of Education website to find out how many staff positions the school districts have. The current school year’s numbers aren’t posted yet. But these were the staffing numbers for the 2009-2010 school year:

547 administrators;

About 9,000 certified teachers;

About 900 specialists such as librarians, guidance counselors, business managers, speech and language pathologists and others;

About 1,270 buildings and grounds personnel;

About 1,476 administration and support staff;

About 800 transportation services personnel;

About 1.050 food services personnel; and

About 2,887 personnel providing student and instructional services.

Based on those figures, we can guestimate that roughly one in every 30 to 35 school jobs was cut this year.

GOP’s new political director is former election coordinator

The announcement by the South Dakota Republican Party late last night clears up the help-wanted sign at the offices of Secretary of State Jason Gant. His campaign manager was Justin Rollins, who segued into a state government job early this year when Gant hired him as elections coordinator. Now the SDGOP has hired Rollins as its new political director. That close relationship between a political party and the state’s top elections officials seems bound to raise eyebrows, deserved or not.