Sunday, August 21, 2016

Is Senator Thune For Or Against Federal Overreach?

     Our Senator John Thune has been going off on the Black Elk Peak name change for a while.  In an RCJ piece last Sunday he complained that the federal naming board's redesignation was
Please, Senator Thune
End The Guessing Game
the act of a "bunch of un-elected, unaccountable bureaucrats waving a magic wand."  The Journal reported that Thune is "exploring ways" of keeping the board from making similar, arbitrary decisions, but that "Thune does not know what action, if any, he will take."  

     I doubt that any substantive action on this will be taken by Thune, but his politically  reflexive whining  about the matter does superficially burnish his "anti-fed" credentials.  Thune's website touts him as a leader "in the fight against overreaching federal regulations," so his complaint that the feds ignored South Dakota's recommendation to retain the name of the well-documented mass murderer General William Harney on the peak in the Black Hills seems consistent with that position and mindset.  But Thune's grousing notwithstanding, the Senator's options are to like it or lump it.  By contrast, our Governor Daugaard wisely and pragmatically decided to go along with the feds on this, choosing to focus on other, more substantive matters that our state has to deal with.  End of story.
     But for all that, it's really the nature of Thune's response that gets my attention. It's redolent of political opportunism and rhetoric.  His blustery vow to rein in the naming board has "appeal to your base" written all over it--and gratuitously so, considering that he's in a reelection campaign that should be handily won.  Thune has gotten much mileage out of his persona as a fed fighter, considering that "federal overreach" is probably the most common little couplet in his political vocabulary.  What's inconsistent about Thune's reaction to the federally-driven decision is the way he ignores his pledge to fight "federal overreach" in other matters when political convenience or imperatives dictate.  For example, last Spring Thune had no hesitation about bringing the weight of the federal government to bear on a private social media company's handling of its news reports. Thune thought Facebook's news feed had a liberal bias to it.  The Facebook Trending Topics flare-up was exactly the opposite of Thune's self-designation as a fighter against federal intrusion and overreach.  Thune's sternly worded statement that Facebook "must answer" and "hold those responsible" if there has been "political bias" in FB's news feed had the ominous tone of a government Leviathan, not to mention a serious disregard for the Bill of Rights.  Happily, Thune's hyper-ventilation on that issue went nowhere.
     On a more spectacular level of inconsistency is Thune's alliance with a presidential candidate, Trump, who promises a substantial increase in presidential power and federal authority.  Thune has endorsed a presidential aspirant who has repeatedly told his followers that he'd use government as a tool to improve their lots in life.  That includes interfering in free markets by punishing private enterprises (including our farm sector) for pursuing global opportunities, increased police patrols in Muslim neighborhoods, federally instigated revitalization of blighted urban districts, punishment for women who have abortions . . . the list goes on. If  this isn't federal overreach, what is?  I wish Thune would get his story straight.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Harney Peak Name Change? A Matter Of Common Decency.

     Is our Governor Daugaard being dismissive or just not paying attention?  On hearing the news a few days ago that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided that henceforth Harney Peak
Harney's Massacre
Honored For This?
will be known as Black Elk Peak, Daugaard said in a
press release that he was "surprised by this decision as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak."  Considering that the state's Democratic Party, which speaks for about a third of SD's registered voters, a year ago made a strong statement in support of the name change (part of a conversation that captured the attention of USA Today, where it got extensive coverage last September), Daugaard's reaction seems disingenuous or simply reveals his indifference toward an issue that has much social and emotional significance to South Dakotans.  Judging from the extraordinarily high number of reader comments that this story got in RCJ's report on it last Friday, there's no doubt that feelings on this matter are strong.
     How could Daugaard have missed the underlying tensions regarding the name change? Seems like a lack of leadership and empathy to me.  In his press release Daugaard says that the change "will cause unnecessary expense and confusion," because he "suspects that few people know the history of Harney or Black Elk."  That compels the question, if more people actually knew the history of Harney, would they tolerate honoring his name by placing it on South Dakota's highest peak?  Here's what the Nebraska State Historical Society has to say about Harney's actions (known as the "Harney Massacre") at an Indian village in 1855 at Blue Water Creek, south of the Black Hills:  "While engaged  in a delaying parley with Chief Little Thunder" Harney's troops "circled undetected" toward the village, "where the infantry opened fire and forced the Indians toward mounted soldiers, who inflicted terrible casualties.  86 Indians were killed, 70 women and children were captured, and their tipis were looted and burned."
     This is the same William Harney who was called "A MONSTER !" by the Cincinnati Journal in 1834 for having beaten his female slave Hannah to death.  Her oversight? Misplacing
Black Elk Peak
And Its Namesake
a set of his keys.  Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think behavior patterns like these are the stuff of glorification, especially in this day and age where information gets disseminated instantaneously to the public, generally, and our kids, particularly.  I  pity the poor History teacher who has to explain how a sadistic madman has been honored in perpetuity by having his name festooned to one of the most notable mountains in the United States.  

     And by the way, don't tell me that we shouldn't be judging his 19th century behavior through our 21st century moral lenses. In1864, Congressional investigators called the perpetrators of the Sand Creek Massacre "foul and dastardly."  I'm not a situation-ethicist, nor do I believe 19th century moral standards tolerated massacres like the one at Blue Water creek.  What I do believe is that expunging Harney and replacing it with Black Elk is a matter of common decency.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Mike Pence Found A Way To Expand Medicaid In Indiana, So Why Can't Daugaard Do The Same In South Dakota?

      South Dakota Republicans should get behind their state's party leader, Governor Dennis Daugaard, and show him some support on Medicaid
Arguing For Medicaid Expansion
Pence Did It For Indiana
It's an issue that shouldn't be polarized into political camps but one that really needs to be addressed on a utilitarian basis.  "Utilitarianism," as a political and economic set of beliefs, boils down to the principle that policies that lead to the greatest good for the greatest number of people should be the ones pursued and implemented by their governments.  Expanding Medicaid fits this definition to a tee, considering that it will add about 50,000 South Dakotans to the Medicaid rolls, taking pressure off of state resources to provide them with healthcare and give South Dakota medical providers a chance to reduce the losses that accrue from caring for people without insurance.  

     If Daugaard's opinion and plans aren't persuasive enough to our legislators to show the govenor some support, they might consider Indiana Governor (and GOP Vice-Presidential nominee) Mike Pence's attitude toward the program that he adopted in Indiana.  Pence created a plan that provides Medicaid coverage for 350,000 residents who make up to 138 percent of poverty level wages (about $16 k/year for individuals, $33 k/year for a family of four).  He attached some strings to the program, which is called Healthy Indiana 2.0, that requires enrollees to pay into health savings accounts, which may be a tweak worth considering in this conservative state of ours.  The plan's website doesn't provide a table, but touts the premium as an "affordable, monthly contribution . . . based on your income."  Indiana's 350k enrollees amount to nearly 6% of the state's population, about the same percentage as our 50k potential enrollees here.
     According to Politico, Pence's program went through despite "upsetting many conservatives who saw the move as betrayal." No doubt Daugaard, regardless of what method for expansion he promotes, will get similar pushback from South Dakota lawmakers.  The ideologically hidebound House Majority Leader Brian Gosch (R-Rapid City) told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader  last June that a block of elected Republican lawmakers don't support expansion because "they know it's bad for the state and for the country."  But like Pence, partisan oppostion like that shouldn't deter Daugaard, because like Pence our governor understands that the money pouring in for Medicaid expansion does the greatest good for the greatest number of South Dakotans.  I invite Gosch and the other naysayers to examine how Medicaid expansion has worked, even in conservative states like Indiana, then I challenge them to find a way of making it work here.
He Ain't No Dummy.  But Some SD Pubs?
I'm Not So Sure.

     These intransigient Republicans need to explain why they oppose Medicaid expansion when two of the most conservative Governors in the United States found it to be something workable and worthwhile in their respective states.  In the meantime this ideological inflexibility should be considered by voters in November who are just plain sick and tired of reflexive hatred toward a plan that promises to do us some good just because it was spawned by the Obama administration.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Noem Gives Up Ag Committee Seat For Ways And Means. Is South Dakota In Her Rear-View Mirror?

     For a while now I've been intrigued by Congresswoman Noem's decision to abandon her seat on the House Agriculture Committee in favor of a spot on the Ways and Means Committee.
Incoherence . . .
Thy Name Is Kristi Noem
 By rule, she can't serve on both simultaneously, so in order to facilitate her career move, she abandoned South Dakota's lone spot on the ultra-important Ag Committee to step into the more nationally-oriented spot on Ways and Means.  Noem spokesman Justin Brasell told the RCJ a few days ago that the move "puts her into a better position to impact congressional action on taxes, trade, healthcare and other issues of concern to South Dakota farmers, ranchers and other South Dakotans."
     That response smacks of p.r. fluffery, especially considering that Noem has been mum about any efforts to revive country-of-origin labeling (thrown under the bus during last Winter's budget deliberations), the main competitive edge that South Dakota livestock producers gained in a market place where American meat producers have to compete directly against their foreign counterparts. On a personal level, given my interests in the lodging industry around here, I'm still waiting for some explanation as to why she was willing to shut down our Autumn, 2013, tourist season by voting to close down the federal government during a budget spat that year. This latest turn of events makes me wonder even more if her commitment to herself is overriding her commitment to those she claims to represent.
     I've always known that a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, given its tax-writing responsibilities, is a magnet for lobbyists and contributors, but didn't know that in recent years its campaign contribution-gathering prowess has grown at a much faster rate than
We Need A Rep Here Instead Of Ag
Like We Need A Hole In The Head
contributions given to congressional reps in general.
 In a 2014 study conducted by Arizona State University's  W. P. Carey School of Business, researchers concluded that campaign contributions to the "tax writing members of Congress" grew at a faster rate--to the tune of 80 percent vs. 60 percent--than contributions to members of Congress in general.  The period covered was 2000-2008, so I'd welcome any data showing the trend has reversed since then. For now these are the latest numbers I could find, and I doubt very seriously that there's been much of a change in this dynamic.   During that same time frame, the study concluded that contributors to at least five members on the committee saw a substantial decrease (nearly 2%) in their effective tax rates, amounting to about $33 million per company.
    It stands to reason that Noem's departure from an essentially provincial gathering of reps limited to issues involving the mainstays of their respective, ag-oriented states to a seat on a committee who's scope is broadly national and involves the bottom-line interests of the nation's largest and wealthiest private corporations is likely to swell her campaign coffers by some pretty substantial amounts.  Is Noem going D.C. native, going for the bucks?  Or does she sincerely believe that this career move makes her a more effective rep for South Dakota interests?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

No Political Debates At Dakotafest This Year? Bummer.

     Seems kind of odd that this Summer's annual Dakotafest, which bills itself as "The Northern Plains' Premier Ag Event" won't be hosting debates between South Dakota's U.S.
A Premier Ag Event?
(graphic from
reps and their challengers this year.  
The event has had a tradition of providing event-goers and television viewers around the state with a venue that focuses on agricultural issues, which of course are the mainstays of South Dakota's rural economy.  In 2014 Senator Rounds debated his two opponents and Representative Noem debated hers at the event.  I was looking forward to a similar match-up this year but just learned that there are no plans to hold debates, just a roundtable discussion involving our three Republican congressional reps,  Senators Thune and Rounds and Representative Noem.  

     Apparently "The Northern Plains' Premier Ag Event"  doesn't deem a brisk political dialogue between opposing U.S. representatives a worthy feature of its schedule this year.  How they come about this decision is the business of event planners, but given that this election cycle will focus on trade policies that are ultra-important to South Dakota's ag producers, it mystifies me as to why a debate between candidates is being shunted aside in favor of a relatively stress free chum-fest among our Republican reps.  Paula Hawks, the Democrat running for our lone house seat against incumbent Kristi Noem, and Jay Williams, the Democratic challenger to John Thune, are being shut out of probably the highest-profile ag gathering in South Dakota.  
     Doesn't seem fair, but I guess it's their venue.  Unlike Thune and his hissy-fit over Facebook's management of its news content a couple of months ago, I'm inclined to shrug it off when private enterprises run their businesses the way they want to.  Meanwhile, I'm sorry that we'll miss a confrontation between Hawks and Noem, because Paula Hawks impresses me  as an articulate and knowledgeable candidate when it comes to ag issues.  She grew up on a farm and her husband has a background in livestock production.  Most pointedly, she'll call attention to Noem's perplexing decision to quit the House Agriculture Committee.  I'd also like to hear Noem's (and for that matter Thune's and Rounds') plans for reinstating country-of-origin-labeling, which was unceremoniously
Yes, Let's Do
Right Here In South Dakota
dumped at last Winter's federal budget deliberations.  

      And as relevant as ever, trade issues need some airing out.  Considering that all the Republicans in our delegation have done their pro forma political duties and endorsed Donald Trump, I'd want to know how that squares with Trump's well-known contempt for trade deals (NAFTA, The TransPacific Partnership come immediately to mind) that are uniformly supported--in a big way--by all the mainstream farm and livestock production organizations.  I've written here before about how the surge in freer trade via these agreements has led to a substantial increase in South Dakota's ag exports.  Now they back the guy that wants to undo all that.  Explanations, please?
     In the meantime, Dakotafest or no Dakotafest, I hope that some way, somehow, we can get these incumbents on to a stage with their challengers and give us South Dakotans some reason to send them back to D.C. or just plain send them packing.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Chance To End Gerrymandering In South Dakota

     We need to pass Constitutional Amendment T, which would create a new legislative redistricting commission in South Dakota. The measure would create a body of 9 members, no more than 3 of whom can be from the same political party, and 3 of whom cannot be registered with any party.  
   First off, consider that the ratio of Republican to Democratic registrations in South Dakota is about 6 to 4.  That's according to last week's tally by the SD Secretary of State.  That Pubs outnumber Dems in this state isn't news, of course, but the way these numbers play out in representation is way out of kilter.  With a legislative edge of 85 Pubs and 20 Dems, the partisan ratio in Pierre favors the GOP by 4.5 to 1.  Even if all of SD's 110,00 registered Independents voted Republican, the ratio wouldn't come close to that.  There is no way that the legislative split comes close to reflecting the partisan make-up of South Dakota.  
     Why the disparity?  I think it's all about gerrymandering.  Under current law, SD's legislature is required to redraw legislative districts every 10 years, after the U.S. Census Bureau releases its findings.  The last redraw occurred in 2011, done by a Republican-dominated legislature.   At the time, GOP reps on the team that created the map told the Pierre Capital Journal that "this process isn't as partisan as it may appear at times" and that claims of gerrymandering were "bogus."  Badly outnumbered Dems for their part claimed otherwise, one of them saying that "the map virtually eliminates competitive races in the Sioux Falls area."  
     My hope, stated here last week, that passage of Constitutional Amendment V, which would eliminate partisan elections in South Dakota altogether, is still intact, of course.  That would make the redistricting matter moot.  But given the ferocious responses by SD's leading Republicans, Senator Thune and Governor Daugaard, to that ballot measure (more on that in another column), you can bet that the full weight of South Dakota's GOP will be thrown against it.  Passage of such a revolutionary overhaul of our state's electoral, executive and legislative structures will be tough, considering that self-preservation is at stake for South Dakota Republicans and their longstanding grip on the state's public affairs.  This other, redistricting amendment, on the other hand. will be much harder to oppose, given the fairness of its structure and the political distribution of the commission's members. It would certainly eliminate the kind of squabbling that redistricting always engenders.  
     I look forward to seeing how the GOP will engage this particular amendment, mainly because if they're convinced that the "process isn't as partisan as it may appear at times," they should have no trouble turning said process over to a commission that can't be dominated by their party.  In a state where GOP registrations amount to less than half of the electorate, there's something seriously awry when more than 80% of the state's elected reps are Republicans.  An independent, partisan-neutral redistricting commission might not be able to fix it, but at least no one can claim that gerrymandering is to blame.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Time For South Dakota Government To Go Non-Partisan

        After reading Bob Mercer's "South Dakota Doesn't Have To Be The Land of Scandals" piece in the Journal over the weekend, I became more convinced than ever that we should pass Constitutional Amendment V on November's ballot.  The initiated measure would do away with party identification of candidates in our state's primary and general elections.  In recapping the lack of "high level accountability . . . enriching private hands" in South Dakota in recent years, Mercer asserts that "we don't have to be Scandal Land."  Indeed we don't.  Readers of my blog will recall that I, along with other prominent bloggers (Cory Heidelberger up in Aberdeen comes to mind) in the state, took long looks at the EB-5 ("cash for green cards") fiasco that has so far resulted in one suicide and one felony indictment and found the entire mess to be a story of ineptitude, bad judgement, conflicts of interest and, per the indictment, alleged criminal behavior.  As Mercer notes, the same conclusions can be attached to the GEAR UP program involving the mishandling of federal funds intended to be used for assisting disadvantaged kids.
     I just think we have had a Republican chokehold on state government for too long in South Dakota, so much so that the entire calcified system lends itself to partisan complacency and chumminess.   I remember the state legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee's lame attempt at investigating the EB-5 fiasco in 2014.  GOAC didn't even insist on a face-to-face meeting with the lead guy in the mess (Joop Bollen), allowing him to provide written answers to written questions instead.  That the Attorney General soon found enough evidence to indict Bollen makes you wonder what the not-so-super sleuths at GOAC overlooked during their kids-glove handling of their oversight responsibilities.
This Stinks
We Need A Shake-Up
     The whole debacle occurred in the context of overwhelmingly partisan government, with Republicans dominating the statehouse, the legislature and the committee itself.  When GOAC's EB-5 report came out, the few objecting Democrats were basically ignored. They have since been vindicated by the continuing unraveling and disclosures of the fiasco's details.  I believe that a stronger Democratic presence in the partisan environs of state government would have resulted in much more forceful efforts at uncovering the truth, but that's the way it isn't in South Dakota.
     Ergo, my belief that a non-partisan setup--like Nebraska's, which has had non-partisan government since the 1930s--would be a welcome change from the stultifying domination of Republicans in this state.  What Amendment V would create is an opportunity to vote for the person, not the party, in our primary and general elections, which means that elected officials would be free to act independently, without fear of party retaliation--and with the ability to approach agenda items on an issue-by-issue basis.  Given the way that "rage against the establishment" has made such a powerful showing in this cycle's presidential campaigns, many South Dakotans are probably as fed up with political business-as-usual as millions of others across the country.  Voting in favor of Amendment V would be an effective way of registering our contempt for the status quo and sending the message that it's time to shake things up.