Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Chance For Accountability In South Dakota Government

     South Dakota's House of Representatives has a chance at advancing the cause of government accountability on Wednesday, February 22.  A bill (HB 1076) that would establish a
Why Is This Man Laughing?
SD Is The 49th On The Integrity Scale
bi-partisan board empowered to investigate charges of official misconduct in state government goes to a committee hearing that day.  Its fate is a test of our SD government's commitment to pursue the intent of the voters when the legislature and Governor Daugaard quashed a law (Initiated Measure 22, an omnibus campaign and government reform measure) passed by the people last November.  In their cavalier revocation of IM 22, government officials repeatedly--and independently of final judicial affirmation--called IM 22 "unconstitutional" and vowed to propose a set of laws that would reflect voter intent.  

     House Bill 1076 is one of those measures.  Conceptually it does answer the crying need for some sort of accountability enforcement structure in state government, a need highlighted in recent years by the twin and tragic (suicides and murders were left in their wakes) fiascoes of EB-5 and Gear-Up.  The first involved investment money from foreigners seeking American residency, costing the state more than $100 million according to the Center for Immigration Studies.  The second was a badly managed educational opportunities program that diverted millions of dollars from its intended recipients.  Since then it has become clear that SD Government needs oversight, needs it badly, and needs it now. The Center For Public Integrity ranks us 49th on the integrity scale, a status that became disturbingly obvious during the state legislature's kid glove investigation of the EB-5 mess, in which the chief perp Joop Bollen wasn't pressed personally, but allowed to provide written answers to written questions.  That joke of an official examination was at least partially ameliorated in recent weeks when SD Attorney General Marty Jackley successfully prosecuted Bollen, gaining a felony conviction for at least one aspect of Bollen's involvement in the EB-5 money machine.  
     Bollen's conviction still leaves so many questions unanswered, questions about how and
49th Worst In The U.S.
Wrong Side Of The Curve
under whose noses he was able to scam the state, that a satisfactory conclusion may never be reached.
The accountability board envisioned by HB 1076 would probably make it tougher for future EB-5s to materialize. That it "may" (according to the language of the bill) instead of "shall" refer alleged violations to state or local prosecutors weakens it a bit. But just having the board in place would be a start toward enforcing integrity in South Dakota government. Rejecting this opportunity to do so will be a signal that our political class has no intention of finding a way to police itself, at least not now.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hi Mom

     Four Republican senators were having a good time sporting their mock gold watches in Pierre yesterday.  They were handed out as a Valentine's Day treat by a lobbyist. The watches might or might not be a joking reference to the fact that gifts to legislators from lobbyists were a central theme of Initiated Measure 22, the campaign and governing reform bill that won at the polls last November. It was effectively repealed in South Dakota's legislature by House Bill 1069, which was immediately signed by Governor Daugaard.  For some background, each Senator's district passed the measure by margins surpassing the statewide victory margin of 51.6%. Nevertheless, just saying "no" to their constituents, all four of the senators voted to repeal IM 22.  

From left to right, the Senator, the district, and the percentage of yes votes for IM 22 in that district:  Jeff Partridge (R 34  52.3%), Deb Peters (R 09  56.1%), Jordan Youngberg (R 08  54.9%), and Terri Haverly (R 35  59.5%).  (Note:  the photo comes from blogger Bob Mercer's Pure Pierre Politics, the voting percentage information from Represent South Dakota)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

I Thought SD Politicos Already Knew The Will Of The Voters. So What's Up With A Task Force Assigned To Find Out The Same?

    When our Governor Dennis Daugaard last week signed the death warrant for Initiated Measure 22, the law passed by voters last November that seriously reformed South Dakota's
Complaining In Pierre
Didn't Do Much Good
(photo from AP)
campaign and governing procedures, he was unequivocal about one thing.  
Said the Governor upon signing House Bill 1069, effectively repealing the law put into place by a majority of voters:  "I will work with legislators to honor the will of the voters."  Our collective decision as expressed at the ballot box is utterly irrelevant to our governing class, so they've taken it on themselves to write a spectrum of laws that they believe are more closely aligned with what they deem to be "the will of the voters."  

    Or have they?  Sure, about a dozen or so bills are in the hoppers of both houses that are connected to government reform.  The 2-year hold on lobbying activities by officials exiting government is a nice one to see, as is the thinly (mostly Democratically) sponsored bill establishing a government accountability board. Progress on that one (HB 1076) will be a true test of Pierre's resolve to honor the voters' will.  Others seem vague and limited in effect--about what you'd expect from legislators who write laws that will affect their longstanding operations. One example? In the spirit of reform (and redundancy--isn't there already a law like this in place?), Senate Bill 27 makes it a crime for public officials to take any actions that "result in a direct financial benefit" to themselves, which I think leaves the door open to "indirect" financial benefits being okay. Even casual students of the English language would understand that a word like "direct" can be subjected to a wide range of interpretations and legally-parsed manipulation.  Another example? House Bill 1073 keeps IM 22's $100 gift limit from lobbyists to elected officials intact, but (as Aberdeen blogger Cory Heidelberger's excellent analysis notes) waters down the voters' intent by restricting fewer recipients, leaving out altogether legislative and executive staffers. And, oh yes, meals with beverages costing up to $75 don't count as gifts.  Bon apetit!
     If the sense of wiggle-rooming their way out of honoring the will of the voters is starting to
How Others See Us
Does Anybody In Pierre Even Care?
creep into the conversation, there's also a stalling device to liven up--maybe "deaden" is a better way to put it--the discussion. Similar bills in both houses 
(SB 171 and HB 1141)  will set up a task force to study government accountability and report back to Pierre in time for next year's legislative session.  Both bills envision a task force consisting of government officials and a small number of hand-picked (by them) state residents. The House bill calls for the state Chamber of Commerce to have a seat.  Nothing against the Chamber, a great organization of which I am a long-standing member, but the representation on these proposed task forces doesn't reflect much in the way of a broad swath of South Dakotans.  It looks to me like the only task this force, laden with entrenched state officials, is likely to undertake is finding a way to sustain the status quo under the guise of "honoring the voters' will."


Friday, February 3, 2017

I Don't Think Democracy Died In South Dakota Yesterday, But It Sure Took A Severe Beating

Nice Thought
Does It Still Apply?
    South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard has found his place in the state's history.  He'll go down as the chief exec who led a revolt by the government against its own people.  The surreality of
it notwithstanding, that's exactly what happened yesterday when Daugaard signed a bill (House Bill 1069) into law, essentially invalidating an Initiated Measure (IM 22) that South Dakota's voters passed last November.  The measure was a drastic reform of campaign and governing procedures in the state that was widely discussed and debated for months before the election.  Overall it was a draconian overhaul of the status quo, limiting lobbying expenditures, creating an ethics commission and putting a public financing of campaigns component into state election procedures.  That last bit caused me to vote against the measure, but nearly 52% of voters believed that it was a good thing, so the measure carried.
     The reaction in Pierre was reflexive and dismissive.  Of course you'd expect an entrenched political class to react in horror to a change as sweeping as IM22.  But what caught naive observers (like me, I guess) off guard was the utter rejection and dismissal of the state's official claim to be the place where "under God the people rule."  Apparently that ethos doesn't mean much, and I certainly suggest that the Governor and the legislature expunge it from all official South Dakota insignia, lest we become even more of a laughingstock in the national conversation about this event.  South Dakota, the first state to adopt statewide initiatives and referendums (in 1898), has a historic commitment to its belief that the people rule.  It took nearly 120 years for that resplendent imperative to get wiped out. Trickle-up democracy just got swamped by an avalanche of official contempt for the voice of the people.
     Supposedly, the next step from South Dakota's governing class is to prepare and pass a set
So Says The Center For
Public Integrity
of reforms that they believe are more consistent with what the voters have in mind.
Daugaard says that "he and the legislators will work to honor the will of the voters." I wasn't aware that divining what voters are thinking is part of the Governor's job description, but given the collective arrogance of this enterprise, I'm not surprised to hear that he and his supporters actually believe that voters were thinking one way and voting another.  Considering that the reforms Daugaard must have in mind will apply to those who are affected by them, I'd have to say that Daugaard's intent may be good, but the follow-through will be a waste of time.  I'm looking forward to doing a point-by-point analysis of the reforms that come from a political cast of characters who reject the notion that in South Dakota, the people rule.  Prove me wrong, South Dakota pols.  

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Koch Brothers Oppose The Travel Ban. So Does My Daughter Emily. So Does The CATO Institute. And, By Golly, So Do I.

      The conservative movement's financial and spiritual doyennes, the Koch Brothers, have unequivocally condemned President Trump's travel ban.  They call it "the wrong approach" and said via their network, "we believe it is possible to keep Americans safe without excluding people who wish to come here and contribute and pursue a better life for their families.  The travel ban is the wrong approach and will likely be counterproductive.  Our country has benefitted tremendously from a history of welcoming people from all cultures and backgrounds.  This is the hallmark of free and open societies."  
     Meantime, my daughter Emily in a public posting on facebook applies some of the analytical thinking she sharpened during her studies at UC Berkeley along with several years as an exec in a rapidly growing hi-tech company based in San Francisco.   Says Emily: "I want to go on the record as stating, DT's xenophobic policies will do nothing but make terrorism *worse.* Why? Imagine the young, uneducated folks struggling under oppressive governments being courted by extreme Islamic ideology and without access to the media. This news will quickly make it's way to IS anti-US propaganda and will enflame the passions of those considering a path to extremism. To fight terrorism, the West should embrace and ally with the moderate Muslim majority around the world; remember that the most gruesome and frequent terrorism incidents happen in Muslim countries (though these rarely make the news with the same gusto as attacks in the West) and moderate Islam is equally if not more motivated and incented to put an end to this viciousness. By preventing the free flow of people (and thus thought) from repressive regimes into the relatively stable West, we alienate the Muslim majority allies that we need critically to end terrorism.
And finally, if we can accept that a human life is a life is a life, and the death of a Syrian is equally tragic to the death of an America, this policy will kill far more people than the infinitesimally small risk of letting in a terrorist posing as a refugee. I get it - terrorism is, well, terrible but it's still a statistically nonexistent as a risk to any one person. The immediate loss of life and increased suffering this new policy far overshadows in net human cost." 

     strongly oppose Trump's ban, myself, but I have to say that when the Koch Brothers and my daughter Emily are on the same side of an issue, something tectonic is going on.  Joining Emily and the Koch Brothers are the conservative thinkers at the CATO institute, who, besides condemning the ban itself, question the choice of countries selected by Trump, noting that "the countries that Trump chose to temporarily ban are not serious terrorism risks."  CATO says that between 1975 and 2015, no Americans were killed here by people from those countries, which produced a total of 17 individuals who were arrested and convicted of carrying out or attempting to carry out a terrorist attack here.  During that period more than 3,000 Americans were killed here by terrorists coming from countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Egypt and a handful of others, mainly Muslim by population) that are not on Trump's exclusion list. Concludes CATO:  "These policies will not improve national security and will undermine America’s efforts to combat Islamic extremism and terrorism around the world."  Trump's hasty and poorly thought out immigration plan has been mercifully put on hold by a federal judge, but the methodology reeks of incompetence just the same.  

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Are Republicans The Party Of Local Control? Not When It Comes To Schools In South Dakota, Apparently

     This year's legislative session in South Dakota, dominated overwhelmingly, as usual, by my fellow Republicans is surely going out of its way to get us locals to do their centrally controlled bidding, at least when it comes to our schools.  I mean, some of the coercive bills that a few of these Republicans are advancing in their determination to have all of South Dakota's localities dance to their ideological tunes makes a
How We Teach Science
Is A Local Decision
laughingstock out of our GOP's historic commitment to letting people run their own lives and institutions on a local level.  

     That particularly sacrosanct principle applies to education. The 2016 GOP national platform specifically says that as Republicans, "we reject a one-size-fits-all approach to education and support a broad range of choices for parents and children at the state and local level."  Get that, South Dakota Republican legislators?  The GOP supports a broad range of choices.  Taking choices away from our local school districts and the boards that run them is the stuff of a party that wants to hypocritically insert itself into people's local affairs.
     A couple of irritating examples of this come quickly to mind.  The first is Senate Bill 55, which will require schools in the state to let teachers teach anything they deem "scientific" to their students in an "objective scientific manner." The unlimited potential for academic mayhem inherent to the nebulous language of this bill (you could make a case for witchcraft being taught as science, for example) is one thing, but that the bill brings the heavy-handed mandate of the state into classroom content decisions goes against every principle of local control that Republicans cherish. Why have school boards when the powers in Pierre want to impose decisions like this?                                                                                                                                  
     Another effort to mandate the operations of our schools has to do with firearms.  This one,
Will It Come To This?
It Could, Per SB 89

(Thanks, Pat Oliphant)
Senate Bill 89, lumps our schools in with every "public entity" in the state, and would make schools liable for civil damages if "a person who is unable to carry a firearm due to prohibition" on their premises were injured by a crime of violence.  If this bill passes, your local school board would be pressured by the state into making a decision about allowing teachers, staff, students, visitors, everybody, to carry firearms on campus. Given the craziness that's been abounding on campuses all over the country in recent years, this is a decision that merits some consideration, my personal feelings notwithstanding.  School boards should indeed be thinking about this--but they should be making the decision without the burden of civil liability law imposed on them by the State of South Dakota.  If the state wants to make the law apply to state-owned facilities, fine.  But our local public schools?  No way this Republican can accept that kind of coercion from the State of South Dakota, where GOP dominators have abandoned the self-limiting principles that used to define their party.  


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Manning The Barricades In Pierre: South Dakota Government Is Revolting Against The People.

     In  a rarely--if ever--displayed act of collective petulance and rejection of reality, the South Dakota legislature has made a strong push to repeal a law that was passed by voters last November.  That
And Our Political Class
Can't Stand It.
(photo from Twitter)
law was Initiated Measure 22, which contained a package of campaign and governing reforms deemed unacceptable by those who are most affected by it--elected officials in the State of South Dakota.  The law imposes strict limits on lobbying, creates an independent ethics commission and provides for public financing of campaigns.  That last point made me vote against the Initiative, but the rest of it is just fine with me, along with a whole passel of South Dakota voters who were satisfied enough with all the elements of the measure to approve the Initiative by a 53% majority.      

     Supporters are justifiably fed up with South Dakota government's lax oversight of its operations. That laxity was embarrassingly and expensively exposed in the past  few years by scandals (EB-5, Gear Up) that resulted in suicide, murder and the loss of millions of dollars of public money. It's little wonder that South Dakota government gets an "F" from the Center For Public Integrity, which places us 47th worst in the country in the corruption sweepstakes. IM 22 is swamp drainage, South Dakota-style.
   A lawsuit against it is now in the court system, where it is properly being scrutinized for constitutionality.  We should all be fine with the legal process it's undergoing.  But, surprising as it isn't, the law is also being attacked by the legislators who are most affected by it, which is unseemly and transparently self-serving.  Spurred on by Governor Dennis Daugaard, who has already condescendingly and dismissively written off the voters' will by saying they were "misled" and "deceived" by supporters of the measure, the legislature is moving to repeal the law altogether.  76 House and Senate Republicans (no Dems) are sponsoring House Bill 1069, which basically guts the
A Status Quo 
That Has To Change
law, provision after provision.

    Considering that IM 22 has already been deemed unconstitutional in its first court test, mainly in anticipation of a final judgement at the state supreme court, I'd say the odds favor the whole thing being thrown out.  If so, a more constitutionally-conforming version will probably surface. Considering the legislative panic this thing has already provoked, unsympathetic voters ready for reform will likely approve a revised version in even greater numbers.  In their cavalier presumption that they know what's best for South Dakotans despite a voter mandate that says otherwise, our stubborn political class can't grasp that the public is ready for some serious change.