Monday, December 30, 2013

Yeeee-haaah! Bring It On Home, Kristi!

     Talk about laying it on--South Dakota's lone U.S. Congressional rep, Republican Kristi Noem, smeared it on with gusto in this morning's Rapid City Journal, telling us in its title that she's "Bringing Home the Farm Bill."  Wow.  Thanks, Kristi.  Could we be more excited?
     Hardly.  In this poster-piece for disingenuousness, Congresswoman Noem says she is "frustrated with the speed of the process but we're making progress."   I can think of a lot of words to describe the legislative progress of the farm bill, which should have been finalized and in place two years ago,  but "speed" isn't one of them.   "Impeded" comes immediately to mind, as it depicts both the glacially-paced movement of the legislation and the lack of political and economic acuity of those who've been holding up the process in the first place.
     Among the latter group of legislators is our own Congresswoman Noem.  She has allied with the extremists comprising the suicide-squad of the Republican party, aka "tea partiers" who are the handmaidens of ultra-conservative non-think tanks like the Club for Slow Growth, the Heritage of the 18th Century Foundation, and The Catotonic Institute.  These are the same intellectual whirlwinds who possessed Noem and her political allies to shut down the U.S. government last October and nearly cause its financial collapse by refusing to raise the debt ceiling a few days later.  Noem blithely went along with this anarcho-ideological crusade without considering the direct consequences on the economy of her home state, where the tourism industry went instantly moribund with the closure of Mt. Rushmore and other national parks.  That ranchers who lost much of their livelihoods during a massive blizzard during that period and had no federal agencies available to assist them must merely have been an oversight for Noem, who professes her concern for passage of a farm bill "that will impact every South Dakotan's life," as she did this morning in the RCJ.
     That Noem's two-year long commitment to cutting $40 billion out of the Food Stamp component of the farm bill is the main reason the legislation has been stuck in neutral isn't mentioned in her piece this morning.  As with Noem's poorly thought out decision to put the U.S. government and South Dakota's economy on hold last October, I wonder if Noem and her advisors understand that the "multiplier effect" of food stamps (resulting in nearly $2 of economic effect for ever $1 spent on food stamps, per Moody's:  http://frac.org/initiatives/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act/snapfood-stamps-provide-real-stimulus/) has a direct effect on an industry "that will impact every South Dakotan's life." Food is what we produce here in South Dakota.  The more money that gets spent on food in this country, the more it helps our farmers and ranchers.  Get it?   Honestly, I doubt that Congresswoman Noem has been able to make that connection, so enamored is she of the right wing propagandists who insist that non-stop across-the-board budget cutting is the rosy path to budgetary and fiscal enlightenment.
     So, glad as I am that a farm bill seems to be coming together, I really wish that Congresswoman Noem wouldn't pull the wool (probably produced by the sheepgrowers around Newell) over our eyes.  This is happening in spite of, not because of, Kristi Noem's efforts.  Happily, some signs of sanity are emerging among the Republicans who comprise the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.  A two year budget compromise just happened and it looks like this farm bill is close to being done.  We can only hope that by some politically osmotic process it has been dawning on Congresswoman Noem that she's in Washington to represent and fight for the best interests of her constituents, not use them as guinea pigs in right wing economic experiments that have never produced positive outcomes. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Yoo-hoooo, Former Governor Rouuunds! Where Aaarrre Youuuu?

     In yet another installment of some of the best reportage this state has ever seen, independent reporter Bob Mercer this morning details the latest in a series of eyebrow-raising revelations to emerge from the Northern Beef/EB-5 saga.  It turns out the legions of guys with the green eyeshades from outside accounting firms that have been called upon to examine the books connected with this fiasco are hampered by the fact that records of many transactions have gone missing.  First off, from the "are you kidding me?" department, it turns out that the South Dakota state auditor's office doesn't have a digital records system, so paper records are still kept in boxes--just the way granny used to do.  Those records must be kept for 5 years,  so all the transactions that took place before 2009 have to be traced using bank data, a cumbersome and time consuming task indeed.                                                                                                                                                                 Seems odd, though, that South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley is quoted in Mercer's piece (soon to be available on the Rapid City Journal website, which still doesn't have it up as I write this) as saying that despite the records gap, his office was able to obtain necessary information involving what he recently described as an "improper transfer" of $550 thousand  that occurred in 2011.  Jackley said he was able to use "other records."  What I don't get and what needs to be clarified is why records of transactions that occurred in 2011, well within the the 5-year window during which they're required to be kept, were missing in the first place.
     Add that to Jackley's  observation that there was an "improper transfer" of state funds, then add those to the as yet publicly undisclosed circumstances of central figure Richard Benda's suicide, and the question of why the Attorney General won't commit the resources of his office to a full-blown investigation into the matter becomes more pertinent than ever.   I've already sounded off on Jackley's reluctance to press forward with this, but tiresome as the repetition of it can be, complete explanations haven't been forthcoming.   That auditors have to deal with missing records is one thing, that the records which should have been on file were missing in the first place is another.
     Meantime, some commentary about this matter, all of which was started and much of which occurred during his administration, seems like a reasonable thing to expect from former Governor Michael Rounds.  Republican Rounds is still the candidate I support for the United States Senate seat coming up for a vote in November, but that doesn't mean he can expect a pass on all of this.  For that matter it's a bit frustrating to see my candidate put on a disappearing act while all sorts of national issues affecting South Dakota are being hashed out in D.C. We haven't gotten a peep out of Rounds as to how he views or would act on them in recent weeks.  This is pretty sorry behavior for a candidate whose claim to the stature of leadership is belied by his reluctance to come out and say something about what's going on.  More pertinently at the moment, a fiasco that may or may not erupt into a full-blown scandal has Rounds' imprint all over it and cries out for some explanation of how all this could have occurred during his watch in Pierre.  I repeat my call from a recent post:  come out, come out, where ever you are, Michael Rounds. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Slaughterhouse EB-Five

     We're at the point now where people from the administration of former Governor (2003-2011) and current Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Michael Rounds, if not Mr. Rounds himself, should be answering some questions about the Northern Beef Plant fiasco in Aberdeen.  We know that the U.S. Attorney and the FBI are looking into the mangled finances of the venture, paid for as it was by foreign investors who got legal entry into the United States by forking over at least $500 thousand apiece toward the enterprise.  That was done under the auspices of the U.S. State Department's EB-5 visa program.  The net result so far is the bankruptcy of the $159 million plant, the suicide of one of the state officials who was active in its development from the ground up, and the "improper transfer" (according to South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley) of over $500 thousand of South Dakota grant money to that very official after he left the governor's office for private life.
     Queries from the conventional media and the blogosphere remain unanswered, and new ones keep popping up.  The $159 million question right now is, how on earth did the idea for this plant even get off the ground?  In an impressively comprehensive post this morning by Cory Heidelberger, who runs The Madville Times (go to http://madvilletimes.com/2013/12/experts-northern-beef-packers-not-viable-failure-part-of-the-plan/ for the full story), the bottom line is that the plant's prospects were dismal from the get-go.  At the time, based on my own involvement in the cattle business (I fed and brokered cattle in South Dakota and the rest of the central and northern Plains for a decade from around 1990-2000) I thought the plant would have its trouble because it was intended for slaughtering and processing South Dakota Certified Beef, a program put into place by the Rounds administration that I believed from hands-on experience wouldn't provide enough cattle for the 1500 head/day Northern Beef Plant.  In 2006, I even devoted much of a column in the Rapid City Journal (http://rapidcityjournal.com/tsitrian-rounds-needs-more-specifics/article_0cb07eb0-bb1a-59f5-8726-25dad78f8089.html) to the difficulties of finding SDCB at grocery stores, along with the reluctance of producers to go along with the program because of its cumbersome paperwork requirements.  A spokeswoman from the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association told me in frustration that nobody from the governor's SDCB office even called them for some advice and involvement. 
     How right I turned out to be, but based on the analyses that are in the Madville Times, the plant's troubles  were based on industry-wide issues, not South Dakota-specific ones.  Economists and cattle producers themselves had seen that the nationwide reduction of the U.S. beef cattle herd, which is at its lowest since the early 1950s, has put the squeeze on the meatpacking industry for several years now, slowing and shutting down plants throughout the country.  I believe the question that Rounds and his people should answer is why on earth they thought a brand new start-up of this size would stand much of a chance bucking that national trend.  Surely at some point in the planning phase, somebody involved with the Northern Beef venture and its dependence on millions of dollars in grants and other assistance from the State of South Dakota would have gotten the idea that its chances for success were virtually non-existant.  The most compelling question of all is, if they'd known about the high-risk nature of the deal, why did they go ahead with it anyway?
    Current Governor Dennis Daugaard recently said of the plant that it is still a potentially viable asset to the state and that he hasn't abandoned hope for some success coming out of it.  I actually share that view, given that the cattle cycle is likely to turn upward as ranchers gradually rebuild their herds in the face of currently record high prices.  But it will take years.  Meanwhile the Northern Beef Plant languishes, bought for pennies on the dollar at a bankruptcy auction by a large creditor.  What needs to be sorted out now is whether this thing was a self-delusionally driven decision made by a governor whose single-minded commitment to a South Dakota-branded beef industry kept him from dealing with the reality of the business, or just a plain old fashioned ripoff by some people who knew that they could get Rounds to okay just about anything that meshed with his fatally flawed vision. 
    
    

Friday, December 20, 2013

Larry Pressler's In The Senate Seat Hunt? I Guess That's The Distraction Du Jour.

     Or is that the double-take du jour?  Frankly, if it weren't for a railroad crossing at Omaha Street in downtown Rapid City named Pressler Junction, I doubt that most South Dakotans in these West River parts would even recognize the name of the former U.S. Senator, a Republican who served 3 terms, culminating in a 1996 defeat at the hands of Tim Johnson, now retiring from that very seat.  Now, after nearly 18 years in the wilderness of self-imposed oblivion (has Pressler spoken out on any issues of consequence to South Dakotans since his departure from public office?), the former Senator apparently (public announcement forthcoming) seeks to represent this state again in the U.S. Senate, only this time as an Independent.
     I wish him well, of course, especially as he's got the public support of one of the Rapid Citians I most admire, Don Frankenfeld.  Don is no slouch, and the fact that he's behind Pressler's entry into the race gives the whole endeavor a lot more substance and credence than it merits.  On this one I think Mr. Frankenfeld is backing a loser who probably won't reach minor contender status.  Nothing personal against Pressler, I'm sure he's a great guy and that he must have represented South Dakota with some effectiveness to have won 3 terms in the Senate, but how are we supposed to take his candidacy seriously after two decades of complete detachment from the great political and economic issues of an entire era?
     The basis of Pressler's campaign seems to be that as an Independent he could tip the balance of power in the United States Senate.  In today's Rapid City Journal, Pressler notes that both parties are now controlled by special interests and that he doesn't  want to be just another partisan "suit."  Okay, but first thing he proposes is restoring congressional earmarks, which are the essence of special interest dominion over Congress.  He also wants to reform the tax code, raise taxes on the wealthy and bring our troops home.  I'll leave it to his campaign to find out how he proposes to do all that.  Meantime, I'm still wondering how and why he kept all that passion bottled up for 18 years, giving us no sense at all of who he is and where he stands on matters that have pre-occuppied  his home state and the entire country during that gap in his resume.
     .This is Johnny-come-lately stuff that seems to serve no purpose other than satisfying Pressler's need to re-enter public life.   To me it signals one thing:  it's time for Michael Rounds to step out of the shadows and get this race and its attendant policy discussions into the news.  Come out, Mr. Rounds, wherever you are. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

C'mon Senator Thune. Raise The Debt Ceiling And Let Us Get On With The Business Of Business

     Our Senator Thune's commitment to common sense will soon be tested as a vote on the increase in the federal debt ceiling is about to take place in the Senate. It already comfortably passed the House, where a sizable number of common sense Republicans voted for the increase.  Thune told Denise Ross at the Mitchell Daily Republic yesterday (and I thank Cory Heidelberger over at South Dakota's best political blog The Madville Times for calling my attention to it) that he might try to get a commitment favoring construction of the Keystone XL pipeline before voting in favor of the debt ceiling.  I think this is political bluff-ola and that Thune will vote for the debt ceiling increase even without a clear commitment from the White House on the pipeline. 
     Why do I think so?  Because as a card-carrying member of South Dakota's business community (yep, I'm a fully paid up member of the South Dakota Retailers Association and my local Chamber of Commerce) I believe that most of my peers in this business-clique would be outraged by a replay of last October's economic turbulence caused by Republican stubborness over the budget resolution and debt-ceiling increase. 
     I'm certain that my counterparts around the United States are of the same mindset. Consider that national associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are successfully throwing money and support behind anti-Tea Party candidates (see recent races in Mobile, AL, and northeast LA, which I have no doubt will be templates for races yet to come).
     As to templates, the benign resolution of the compromise budget talks of a few days ago even got a "yes" vote from South Dakota's Republican U.S. Rep Kristi Noem.   She was part of the cabal that shut down the federal government last October, and will probably be the model for of the way South Dakota reps should vote on the debt ceiling talks.   That means the ceiling will be raised and we can all go about our business without a replay of the  frenzied atmosphere that blew a sizable hole in the U.S. economy last October.  I experienced firsthand (via my tourism industry interests) what shutting down Mt. Rushmore did to South Dakota's economy and would rather not experience that again.
     Senator Thune, I expect you to understand that many of us who supported you over the years will be looking forward to your generally common-sense approach to these things.  As Paul Ryan noted a few days ago when announcing the budget compromise, "in a divided government you can't always get what you want."  You can try sometimes, but you just might find--you'll get what you need.  Anarchy is no substitute for getting the business of government done.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How Embarrassing. Check Out Teacher Pay In South Dakota And Compare It To Our Bordering States. Governor Daugaard, Can You Do Something About This?

     As if being the state with the lowest-paid teachers in the United States isn't embarrassing enough, we South Dakotans should be concerned about how teacher salaries here compare with those of our bordering states.  Consider, SD teachers average $39K/year.  Now check out the following:  In WY, teachers make $58k/yr.  In MT it's $50k/yr; in ND it's $47k/yr, in MN it's $56k/yr, in IA it's $51k/yr and in NE it's $48k/yr.  You can see this graphically, along with some commentary and analysis at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/12/15/how-much-teachers-get-paid-state-by-state/   In general, comparisons that include SD vs. say, NY or CA are pretty much meaningless, given so many economic and location-specific differences.  But comparing us to our immediate neighbors is more apple to apple-like . . . and these numbers should be some cause for concern.
     On the purely economic face of it, we have to assume that top graduates from education departments in the region are avoiding careers in South Dakota out of hand.  This is not to denigrate the many outstanding and dedicated young teachers that begin their careers here.  I know, at least anecdotally, having been married to a public school teacher for nearly 4 decades now, that many of these fine young professionals are in South Dakota for personal and family reasons.  But bright young graduates  who have no particular ties to South Dakota are probably ignoring opportunities here, considering they're so financially limited.  More tellingly, given the contrasting salaries noted above, those who love the lifestyle of the northern Plains and the Rockies need only go to a nearby state and get the benefits of both the lifestyle and a much handsomer salary for doing the same work as they'd do in South Dakota.
     This should be worrisome to the forward thinkers who manage our state and its governmental and business affairs.  I note the colossal failure of Governor Daugaard's recruitment efforts via headhunting agencies with a national reach and wonder if the Governor's hired recruiters had trouble overcoming the data about our lowest-paid-in-the-country teachers when making their pitches to potential emigres into South Dakota.  From a purely public relations standpoint, this kind of information is nasty stuff.  I admire Governor Daugaard's efforts aimed at economic development but wonder if he and his staff aren't overlooking, if not altogether ignoring, a major component of the state's infrastructure--the quality of its professional educators--when touting the benefits of life and work in South Dakota.  As of now, I think it's a liability, and I challenge Governor Daugaard to commit the remainder of his time in office into converting it to an asset. 
     

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cry Me A River, Attorney General Jackley

     In a press release dated Friday 12/13, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley complained about editorial criticism of his handling of the loss of South Dakota's money in the collapse of Northern Beef Processors of Aberdeen, South Dakota. NBP is a South Dakota-assisted venture that is part of the U.S. State Department's EB-5 visa program granting entry into the United States in exchange for substantial investments in American firms.  You can find complete coverage by checking out independent reporter Bob Mercer's numerous articles on the subject--just google him and you'll get an excellent, comprehensive re-cap, all of it much too long for this blog's purposes
     Anyway, the fiasco is of such magnitude, involving tens of millions of dollars, including grants from the State of South Dakota, that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney are investigating it. That's all well and good, but South Dakota's Attorney General apparently doesn't want to get into the act and has taken to complaining publicly about those who want an investigation.  Jackley notes in his press release that  in spite of the fact that "the Attorney General has no authority over a federal EB-5 program and the associated approval process of funds, it will continue to cooperate with federal authorities."   Given a particular sequence of events that resulted in what Jackley himself called an "improper diversion" (Rapid City Journal 11/23/13) of $550 thousand of South Dakota's grant money that was awarded to NBP, there is an obvious South Dakota-specific component to this whole story--namely, how did more than half-a-million bucks get transferred from South Dakota to NBP to a gent (now deceased via suicide a few weeks ago) named Richard Benda, who happened to be the central operator of the South Dakota office that was working directly with NBP and from which the money originated in the first place?  To be a accurate, Benda ended up with $450k, only adding to the mystery by opening the question as to what happened to the remaining $100k.
     We already know that Benda double-billed the State of South Dakota for travel vouchers to the tune of nearly $6 thousand, so the man is tainted from the get-go.  We also know that Jackley won't allow the results of the investigation of Benda's death to go public.  We already knew that Jackley washed his hands of any further investigative interest.  What we don't know is this:  why is Jackely complaining because editorialists and bloggers around the state are harping on him to get the full story.  about the details and possible pre-arrangements of a fund transfer that Jackley has already characterized as "improper?"  Seems to me the details of any impropriety involving substantial sums of South Dakota's money are worthy of a full-blown investigation by state officials.
     The classic dodge by public officials on a hot seat is to blame the media for their troubles.  Supporters of the officials also often cry "politics!"  These dodges are so often used that they would have a place in the "Ad Hominem Hall of Fame"  if there were such a place.  For my money, the latter is bunk because I support Governor Daugaard in his re-election campaign and his predecessor Mike Rounds in his bid for the Senate.  Given the whole NBP fiasco took place during their watches in the Governor's office, I think it's fair to conclude that my interest is in finding out exactly what happened, not politically crippling the two guys I'm supporting in the coming election.  As to the former dodge, blaming the messenger--I think Attorney General Jackley better have variations on that theme at the ready, because the media won't be going away anytime soon on this. 
    

Friday, December 13, 2013

Man bites dog! Pope renounces Christ! Kristi Noem votes to keep government open!

     Based on her reasoning for voting for last October's federal government shutdown, South Dakota Congresswoman Kristi Noem's vote in favor of a compromise budget resolution is a triumph of the improbable.  Nothing structural has changed, fiscally, in the budget that she rejected along with a pack of Congressional anarchists last October, garnering enough votes to bring the entire federal government to a halt.  The same outside, ultra-rightist organizations lobbied as hard as they did the last time to get their handmaidens in Congress to go along with their Tea Party-endorsed slash and burn budget that left no room for compromise.  And of course the right wing media kept up its steady barrage of my-way-or-the-highway diatribes.  That Noem was able to buck this pressure, along with enough of her fellow Republicans, and vote yes for the compromise budget crafted by negotiators from the House of Representatives and the Senate was a sign that reality may be creeping back into Republican thought processes these days.  The compromise budget passed easily in the House and should also clear the Senate.
     Noem of course took a ferocious amount of home-state criticism after her votes last October.  I really don't think it dawned on her that shutting down Mount Rushmore and other national parks during the heart of the Autumn tourist season may not have been the brightest move in the world.  On top of that, winter storm Atlas shrugged its mighty shoulders and tore up the state so badly that tens of thousands of cattle and other livestock died in their tracks, perhaps the single biggest economic catastrophe to hit the state since the dust bowl days of the Depression.  Financially shell-shocked ranchers, needing some immediate relief, found that the federal offices that could help them out were all shuttered thanks to the shutdown that Noem and the rest of the Republican Party's political suicide squad engineered.  Bad move, that, one that is only partly mitigated by Noem's vote for yesterday's compromise bill that should keep another shutdown crisis from occurring, if it does, for a couple of years.
     I say "partly mitigated" because Noem's next chance at some political redemption comes up soon when the long delayed new Farm Bill finally gets hammered out.  This bill, well overdue for renewal by a factor of more than a year,  has been stalled because Noem and her fellow Tea Party-stoked Republicans are insisting on stripping away the Food Stamp (technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP)  component of the bill and considering it separately, the general upshot being that Food Stamps can then be used as the next political football over which Congressional forces can fight.  Most Democrats and a number of moderate Republicans don't want that to happen, ergo the long-running standoff that has resulted in frustrating delays for ranchers and farmers, in particular, because they have to make planting decisions soon based on how the Farm Bill shakes out.  I only hope that Noem, who by yesterday's vote seems to have re-evaluated her basic assumption that national Republican initiatives are not always the best thing for her South Dakota constituents can understand that for every dollar spent on Food Stamps, a buck-seventy's worth of economic activity is generated.  In this case that economic activity is directed at the entire food production chain, starting out with farmers and ranchers. 
     Supposedly the new bill will be crafted and voted on in the early weeks of January, and there's no hint of how any compromise, if any, is shaping up.  My hope is that Noem will convince us that she's indeed a born-again representative and come up with reasons to devise and support a plan that will do her home state the most good, not one that will gain approving assent by a national cabal of ultra-rightists who will insist on draconian cuts in food stamps. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hey! This Is My Money We're Talking About, Mr. Jackley . . .

    . . . and not only is the money mine, but it jointly belongs to about 800,000 other South Dakotans.  I wish you'd given that some thought before summarily rejecting reporter Bob Mercer's request to look at the investigation that followed the death of Richard Benda,  the South Dakota state official who double-billed the state for travel to the tune of more than $5 thousand and was very involved in the Northern Beef Processors  fiasco. You've already identified some improriety in the transfer of $550 thousand of state-granted money from Northern Beef to a private entity.  Now you've followed your ill-conceived refusal to further pursue this case with a rejection of public inspection of some of its most relevant documents--those that record the details of the month-long investigation of Benda's death--because one of Benda's family members, a teenage daughter, won't grant written permission via her mother, Benda's estranged (via divorce) wife.
     This is baloney.  Apparently, the feelings of one teenager trump the call for full public disclosure of all the circumstances surrounding Benda's death, coming as it did in the midst of an investigation of his role in the financial wreckage of Northern Beef and its concurrent connections to the EB-5 visa program and a private entity called SDRC, Inc.  Sympathetic as I am to the feelings of Benda's daughter, the facts of life for a public official should be clear to all of that official's family--there may come time for public disclosure of many details that are simply uncomfortable or even emotionally unbearable for the immediate family.  This is heart-wrenching stuff, indeed, but at this point it seems clear to me that the needs of South Dakota's citizens to get at the truth of what happened to their money have to take precedence over concerns about the pain that will be inflicted on Benda's daughter. 
     Certainly, this wouldn't be the first time that offspring have been emotionally traumatized when the truth about a parent is revealed.  Fact is, there's still a reasonable chance that the disclosure of the investigation documents will prove to be benign and not worthy of this brouhaha in the first place.  That Jackley and Benda's family are so circumspect about keeping the information  close to their vests  is what makes that likelihood the object of more than morbid curiosity.  Suspicion is reasonably raised, considering both the U.S. Attorney and the FBI are involved in the investigation of the affairs that Benda was so closely connected to.  Now that Attorney General Jackley has decided to blow off any further investigations by his office of what he already called the "improper" handling of the people of South Dakota's money ("improperly diverted" to repeat Jackley's exact phrase), his decision to withhold investigative results of Benda's death are starting to look like a trend toward stonewalling.
     I don't know much about Attorney General Jackley, but I do know this:  He's no crusader.  At this point we might as well give up on him and his efforts to represent the state's interests and hope that the entire legislature can step in and find out just exactly what happened in this imbroglio that almost daily raises more questions than it answers. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Much Ado About Something . . .

     The Chamberlain School Board is tenaciously committed to doing the wrong thing by refusing to allow a Lakota Indian honor song to be performed at its high school graduation exercises.  On a 4 to 2 vote, rejecting a  request to perform a traditional musical number in Lakota to honor the school district's Indian students, many of whom are residents of the nearby St. Joseph's Indian School and who make up about a third of the district's enrollment,  is a bad move on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start.  I guess a place as good as any for my business-minded take on the world is the consideration that each of these students is responsible for bringing thousands of dollars a year into their district, which would be a fraction of its size but for the Indian students.  That accounts for a serious economic presence that should automatically give those kids and their families some say about getting recognized come graduation day. 
     Perhaps a less materialistically crass consideration is the divisive effect that this must be having on the Chamberlain community itself.  In fairness to the school board it should be noted that the district does much in the way of recognizing its Indian students in the way of activities and learning opportunities, and that a special feathering ceremony takes place the night before graduation--but none of these quite matches the signal moment of a graduation exercise with all its pomp and ceremony--virtually all of it derived from European traditions and their Anglicized variations.  Adding a touch of the Indian sense of ceremony and recognition  to a graduation whose Indian participants form such a large number of the honorees only makes sense and gives a nod to the fact that times change, and along with the change come changes in traditions and ceremonies.  Refusing to accept changes and adapt to them can only create conflicts between those who revere  the past and those who are creating the present. 
     On a broader scale, there's also the consideration of how this plays out in the very tough and demanding world of public relations.  I can just see how this will play out and reflect on South Dakota if and when the national media get their mitts on it.  It's hard for me to see a story that has any sympathy at all for the school board's position.  It's easy for me to see plenty of stories that have nothing but derision.  I urge the Chamberlain school board to reconsider this decision and let these outstanding young Indian scholars have their moment in the sun come graduation day.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dear Prudence, Won't You Come Out And Play?

     Prudence, thy name is Governor Dennis Daugaard.  As I admire prudence, by extension I admire Governor Daugaard.  It was certainly hard to find fault with the Governor's op-ed piece in this morning's Rapid City Journal touting his reasoning for committing much of the unclaimed property windfall that just descended on South Dakota (to the tune of around $70 million) to paying down some of the state's long term debt.  Strengthening  a balance sheet is always a worthy endeavor, one that every prudent money manager should rank as among the highest of priorities.
     However, in a state like South Dakota, where scrambling for opportunities is a way of political and economic existence, I'm wondering if Governor Daugaard's single-minded devotion to paying down debt isn't overplaying the prudence hand.  Certainly the governor is no slacker when it comes to plunking down some money on growth-oriented ventures like the one he just derailed by pulling out of a $5 million deal with a headhunting agency to find qualified professionals and skilled workers for a state that lately has had a chronic shortage of them.  A million bucks into a decision that produced something like 80 jobs, the Governor called the whole thing off the other day, in my view prudently so.  Four million of good money after one million of bad called for a bail.  Others may have found fault, either at the time or now in retrospect, with Daugaard's decision in the first place, but I was okay with it and would still support it given what we all knew at the time.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 
     My point is, the economic gains that the State of South Dakota seeks to achieve come with investment, which by definition means some risk-taking.  Perhaps it's the failure of the Governor's job-seeking deal that is making him risk-averse just now, perhaps it's the cumulative effect of the Northern Beef fiasco with its ties to the Governor's Office of Economic Development.  My take is, paying down debt, even if much of it is to take out obligations incurred by Building South Dakota, this year's variation on the age old theme of economic development initiatives, is probably the least dynamic use of the windfall money that's out there.
     For one thing, I note that South Dakota's balance sheet is already in pristine condition, with the state's bonds getting very high marks from the various ratings agencies.  South Dakota's debt has been managed well and there's every reason to expect our state to maintain its unblemished payment history.  For another, I think the State of South Dakota will get a much bigger bang for those bucks if they're put into circulation in any of several categories, including helping school districts with capital outlays, setting up a reserve to make up for shortfalls that might occur if ACA's Medicaid expansion gets a nod from the Governor, giving employers a break on state payroll taxes when it comes to new hires--too many to list here, but the opportunities abound.
     My hope is that the Governor will at least temper his categorical commitment to paying off bonds with this windfall cash and consider the many productive ways that this money could be put into use by circulating throughout our state.  Getting an economist or two on board to help out with the decision wouldn't be a bad idea.  A guy who was much wiser and richer than I am once put it quite well:  Money is like manure.  It doesn't do any good unless you spread it around.
     So pray tell dear Prudence, aka Governor Daugaard, won't you come out and play? 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Wait A Minute. We SD Taxpayers are reimbursing our legislators for attending out-of-state meetings where this kind of political boilerplate gets served up? I'm kind of amazed actually.

    
     Extremism is one thing. Detachment from reality is another. Here's Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas calling for a repeal of the 17the Amendment, taking away direct election of U.S. Senators and returning to the system of having them appointed by state legislatures: http://trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com/2013/12/ted-cruz-at-alec-summit-end-direct-vote-for-senators.html/ He delivered this retrograde broadside today at a "summit" of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) in Washington, D.C., confirming that the need for the restoration of common sense to the Republican Party just got starker than ever.  I mean, disenfranchisement anyone? Good grief.
     That a  covey of elected South Dakota state representatives have been attending these gatherings (Cory Heidelberger at The Madville Times did a nicely comprehensive piece about it yesterday--http://madvilletimes.com/2013/12/ten-south-dakota-legislators-attend-alec-events-wick-skips-budget-address-for-alec/) isn't particularly surprising, given the ideological tilt of our state's legislature and ALEC's patently obvious existence as a forum and promoter of extremely conservative political agendas.  Besides Cruz, for example, Grover Norquist, who thinks cutting government spending is the only pathway to fiscal nirvana, is a featured performer--make that speaker--at this circle of not-so-smart ALECs.  In my view it's the extremist, my-way-or-the-highway approach to governance by Cruz and his following in D.C. that could prove to be the end of the Republican Party, driving so many of the political realists out of the fold that the GOP will be left only with a relative handful of screaming, if powerless, ideological diehards.  Those of us in the party who believe that politics is the art of the possible just stand by and shake our heads at these extremists who view politics as the art of self-immolation. 
     But I stray. My main beef in all this isn't that some SD reps choose to attend a political gathering.  Heck, they can attend any meetings they want.  No, my beef is that they take these ALEC-organized junkets on the state's dime.  I'd be just as annoyed if I learned that reps who happen to be Democrats are attending leftist gatherings at the state's expense, and frankly, I'm beginning to suspect that some of them do.  Either way, this whole practice of taxpayer-supported trips to political gatherings should come to a halt, and I hope there will be some legislative review of this activity.  In the meantime, I'd like each of the relevant elected officials to report back to someone (me, if possible--I can be reached right here at this blog) and explain what occurred at the ALEC meetings that justified spending my money on them.  I'll gladly publish the information, and thank them in advance for complying. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hold On There, Governor Daugaard. Let's Think About Pre-Funding That Economic Development Agency

     Governor Dennis Daugaard yesterday during his budget address called for spending $30 million of some unexpected revenues on a newly formed economic development fund called Building South Dakota.  This is essentially a pre-payment of BSD's costs to the state, which would have taken years to pay off, including interest.  I really think this is a bad idea.  For one thing, in this environment of ultra-low interest rates, with long term borrowing still available at very low single-digit rates, I don't think it's a great idea to pay off anything, much less an untested agency that may prove to be of little or no value.  That's the businessman inside of me speaking.
    Looking at it from my taxpayer's perspective, I think there are more pressing needs for the money and that it should be distributed accordingly.   Without going into ancient debates, the Governor's draconian cuts in both education and healthcare, made when he first took office under undeniable budgetary duress, have yet to be made whole, even with the respective 3% increases they're slated for next year.  As the spouse of a lifelong public school teacher (now nearing retirement and working as a sub), I see firsthand the shortages of teachers and facilities that could stand some serious improvement.  For example, oversized kindergarten classes squeezed into tiny bungalows are just not going to make it when it comes to teaching 5-year olds some important skills.  Bussing kids from one end of town to the other because of classroom shortages is a terrible use of funds that should go directly into the classrooms.  I urge you, Governor Daugaard, to consider some of these pressing needs before you make a final commitment to coughing up $30 million to Building South Dakota.
     On the healthcare front, getting money to healthcare providers in sums that can take them back to the levels prior to Daugaards sweeping cuts doesn't seem like too much to ask in the way of prioritizing it ahead of an economic development fund.  At some point I'll take this up in fuller measure as part of a Medicaid expansion post--but for now I can tell you that medical professionals seem solidly in favor of restoring those cuts, per what I hear and see from associations and individuals.
     As to the fund itself, why should it get a free pass with full funding upfront when just about every other segment of the state's agencies and dependent institutions has to compete for money at every budget session?  Building South Dakota sounds like a good idea, but so did the Governor's Office of Economic Development at one time.  The GOED fiasco itself should be fair warning that economic development agencies need careful scrutiny and oversight--and what better way to exercise that sort of control than by making agency directors come forward every year with a score card attached to their request for annual funds?  No way can I see handing over a big chunk of cash at the outset and telling those folks to have at it.  Make BSD fight for its money like every other agency.
     So how about it, Governor Daugaard?  As a friend and faithful supporter I'm hoping you'll re-consider on the full funding of BSD decision and put that money into circulation where it'll do some good--among the people of South Dakota. 
    

Monday, December 2, 2013

At This Point, South Dakota Dems Don't Have Much Of A Field

     Looks to me like South Dakota Democrats are coming up way short as their field for the '14 elections starts to coalesce.  Nothing against Joe Lowe (running for Governor), Rick Weiland (running for the U.S. Senate) and Corinna Robinson (running for the U.S. House), but the first question that pops to mind on scanning this line-up is, who are these people?  Next question:  what sort of qualifications are they bringing to the table?  And finally, the most germane question of all: how on earth will they raise the kind of money it will take to mount serious challenges in their respective races?  About now I think the best that Dems can hope for is a breakout of scandalous news in the EB-5 investigation that is big enough to taint former Governor Mike Rounds in his bid for the U.S. Senate and sitting Governor Dennis Daugaard in his bid for re-election.  There is, of course, one happy note for Dems--they don't have to abandon all hope.  Congresswoman Noem is vulnerable just by the fact of being Noem, essentially a tool of outside Republican interests who showed those colors by voting to shut down Mt. Rushmore and other national parks in South Dakota during the peak of last October's tourist season, essentially blowing off her constituents at the behest of a national organization that believed shutting down the federal government was a savvy and productive way of making a political point.  However, I doubt that Corinna Robinson will have the political and financial resources necessary to take Noem out, wishful as I am that she could.
     And speaking of wishfulness, I still haven't abandoned the notion that my neighbor and Harvard University Professor Steve Jarding could enter the House race and give Noem a whipping.  Yes, yes, I know I'm a Republican and all that, but uncompromising my-way-or-the-highway Republicans are  the bane of the GOP, considering they've abandoned the notion that the responsibility of federal representation calls for governance, not confrontation, practical solutions, not ideological pipe dreams. I've already said I'd back Jarding if he runs against Noem--and for the record, I still like Mike and plan to back Dennis for re-election.
     Meantime, back to the essential problem facing SD Dems next November.  Seems to me it's one of leadership.  Too bad for them that Tom Daschle seems to have gone missing in recent years, as he's probably the only stature-laden Democrat that can take the party's statewide reins and pull together an organization that can get excited about itself and possibly coax the Steve Jardings and some other forceful Dems that are now in the wings into running, knowing they've got an energized and committed statewide party structure behind them.  The shame of it is that some important debates--I'm thinking Daugaard's refusal to take the Medicaid expansion offer from the Feds, for one--probably won't get aired out as vigorously as they should because the announced Dem field will be consumed with the needs to raise money and build up some name recognition  among an electorate that will for most part be wondering just who the heck these candidates are before taking the time and making the effort to pay attention to what's actually being said. 
    

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How Very "Improper" Of Them. Now Let's Move On, Shall We?

     There was a Looney Tunes-like quality to South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley's blow-off of any further state investigation of that 550 grand of the State of South Dakota's grant money being diverted from a meat packing plant (Northern Beef Processors) in Aberdeen to a private contractor.  The AG seemed to be saying the political equivalent of "that's all, folks"  in a Dirk Lammers/Bob Mercer-bylined article published in yesterday's (11/23) Rapid City Journal about the subject.  No state charges have been filed as a result of Jackley's conclusion that the grant money was, as the RCJ piece put it,  "improperly diverted" to a private entity that used it to pay off some of its obligations.  AG Jackley further went on to say that his office would assist the U.S. Attorney and the U.S. Department of Justice in their investigations of the matter.  The money was part of a $1 million dollar grant that was handed over in 2011 to the failed Northern Beef Packers venture in Aberdeen, South Dakota, intended to be spent on construction and equipment costs. Next thing you know, $550 thousand of it went to a private firm called SDRC that used it to pay "immigration loan monitoring fees" that were probably accrued as part of its business of seeking out foreign investors (via the federal EB-5 program) to put money into American ventures in return for visas that could lead to permanent residency in the United States.
     That  this was deemed "improper" strikes me as one of the classic understatements in recent official rhetoric, as I think words like "outrageous" and "incomprehensible" are probably more descriptive of this occurrence.  That Jackley announced no plans to investigate further strikes me as a weak response to what should be an alarming breakdown in the granting process itself.  I have no doubt that South Dakota's grant system has controls in it to make sure that grant money is used for its intended purposes and I want to know why those controls weren't applied to the meatpacking plant, which got the million for capital costs and turned over more than half of it to a separate, privately-held entity to help that entity cover its operating costs.  To me this seems absolutely incredible and more than worthy of deeper investigation.
     I recently urged Governor Daugaard to step into this whole venture and call for a comprehensive state audit of every single transaction between and among the State of South Dakota, Norther Beef, SDRC and any other individuals involved in our state's involvement with the EB-5 program.  More immediately, I want to know whose oversight went missing when a significant chunk of cash was ripped off from a state grant and handed over to an enterprise that had nothing to do with the grant's intended purpose. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Too Many Windmills, Not Enough Tilt

     I spent a couple of hours last night at the "debate" between GOP U.S. Senate candidates Stace Nelson and Annette Bosworth.  The South Dakota Tech-hosted event could attract just those two out of a field of 4 candidates running for the GOP nod in the coming primary (Larry Rhoden and Mike Rounds were absent, both pleading "prior commitments").  That Nelson and Bosworth showed up just the same said much about their commitments to their unrealistic shots at the nomination.  That they couldn't break out of their standard Tea Party/right wing fringe rhetorical parameters said even more about the near-impossibility of their respective crusades.  Don Quixote himself would shake his head at the futility of their prospects. 
     They lashed out at the national debt (though neither had much of an answer to my question about how they would stimulate the economy to generate tax revenues as a way of reducing the debt, Bosworth saying she would get rid of regulations that stifle free enterprise, Nelson resoundingly announcing that he'd repeal Obamacare--two answers that are pablum for the extreme right but don't resonate in real life), decried the bloated bureaucracy in D.C. (a rhetorical safe harbor for would-be federal officials who don't have much in the way of realistic plans to reduce the size of government), denounced the Affordable Care Act (Bosworth calling it "evil", Nelson comparing it to what he considers the overly-bureaucratized and poorly  delivered health care that he gets from the Veterans Administration.  Neither candidate gave up much in the way of how they would fix this country's healthcare status quo.  Bosworth said she would remove the layers of people who get between physicians and their patients and move toward a direct cash payment system at the points of contact--and she wasn't kidding. Nelson said he would let the free market work, whatever that means.) 
     The choir these two were preaching to was small (around 60) in numbers but sizable in enthusiasm, with repeated bursts of applause for answers that to me seemed generally incoherent and rambling.  Nelson was especially fond of interspersing his comments with irrelevant references to his service in the United States Marine Corps that apparently were intended to make some sort of a point but essentially carried him off into tangents that had little to do with the discussion at hand.  Bosworth explained that she decided to go into medicine because, having been raised on a farm, she "hated to do hog chores," which struck me as a rather flip, if not altogether disdainfully condescending, disregard for the huge bloc of voters that will come from the agricultural production communities in this ag-oriented state of South Dakota.
     Anyway, after two hours of this I got the idea and left during the break.  All I can say is that I appreciate the willingness of Bosworth and Nelson to get into the process of serving as elected officials and I wish them both well in their campaigns and coming endeavors. 

    

Thursday, November 21, 2013

South Dakota needs to look at this EB-5 thing.

     Okay, I get that the Attorney General's office and the U.S. Attorney are concurrently investigating the EB-5 investment program that financed the meatpacking plant fiasco in Aberdeen with funds provided by foreign investors who, as part of their inducement to put money into emerging enterprises in the United States, are also able to obtain green cards for legal entry into the U.S.  Excellent conventional media reportage by Bob Mercer (available in the Rapid City Journal and other papers around the state) and aggressive blogosphere look-sees by Cory Heidelberger over at The Madville Times (just google that phrase, you'll find it) will provide plenty of background and details.
     From the avalanche of facts available so far, it's clear that the State of South Dakota, through its Governor's Office of Economic Development, worked closely with  a privately held firm called SDRC, Inc. on a contractual basis that gave administrative functions involving the EB-5 program to SDRC.  Last September, the contract was canceled by South Dakota "for cause."  Okay, that's fine.  But what I want to know is, what was the "cause?"  I'm perfectly willing to accept that both the state and federal  investigative forces need to operate in their respective vacuums of confidentiality at this stage of the game, but have every reason to expect to know the specifics about a contract revocation between South Dakota and SDRC, particularly since there was no indication that the "cause" was itself a subject of investigation by state and federal gumshoes.
     More  than that, I think an audit of the entire relationship between South Dakota and SDRC is perfectly in order, considering that state time and expenditures were no doubt part of the dealings involved here.  When asked to initiate such an audit during the past few days, a spokesman for Governor Dennis Daugaard's offce was reported by Dirk Lammers of the Associated Press (note:  I inadvertently attributed this quote to Bob Mercer in my original post and regret the error.)  as saying that the contract between our state and SDRC "did not give the Governor's Office of Economic Development the authority to audit all of SDRC records."  I'm sorry (and believe me, I consider myself a friend and supporter of Governor Daugaard) but this does . . . not . . . wash.  Granted, SDRC's records involving affairs that have nothing to do with South Dakota are rightfully off-limits to SD auditors--but what about dealings involving public time and money that are directly done with our state?  Speaking as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen of this great State of South Dakota, I think I'm well within my rights to demand an audit of every single transaction that took place between my state and SDRC.
    So how about it, Governor Daugaard?  Let's be up-front about this and open those books. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Memo to Wall Street Bashers: Lighten Up.

     Outrage is often more reflexive than reflective.  A case in point is the blogosphere-wide, anti-Wall Street reaction to the recent passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of a bill listed as H.R. 992 (a good recap comes from the Congressional Budget Office at http://www.cbo.gov/publication/44064--you'll  have to c&p for now, I'm still figuring out linkage).  As it stands now, Dodd-Frank excludes firms that engage in legitimate hedging transactions from financial back-ups provided by the United States and the Federal Reserve.  H.R.  992 would reverse that, significantly expanding domestic markets for affected firms and streamlining their operations by allowing them to bring their separately maintained risk management operations into their corporate folds..  
     There's no question in my (or any rational thinker's) mind that many of Dodd-Frank's provisions were and are imperative in the constant quest for maintaining fair and orderly markets.  This aspect of it, however, is an over-extension that puts domestic banks at a competitive disadvantage against foreign competitors and really has nothing to do with curbing through regulation and oversight the ridiculously speculative extremes that derivatives trading reached during that go-go era that crash-landed a few years ago. Financial institutions have to be reined in from letting this type of trading get out of hand.  Keeping those that engage in the commonly accepted and long standing practice of risk management from going to the federal window and borrowing cash as necessary for the regular maintenance of their operations when money tightens up is an overreach of Dodd-Frank's restrictions.
     Yes, H.R. Bill 992 was crafted by the financial institutions that themselves are subject to its provisions, which is not necessarily the best thing, but to my way of thinking the only practical thing.  Speaking as a 20-year veteran of market-making in stock options and aggressive trading and hedging of grain and livestock futures here in the Dakotas (10 as a member of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, another decade as a principle in a commodity futures brokerage firm), I understand the complexities of derivative-trading and doubt that there's much expertise in the field anywhere in the halls of Congress.  The crafting of a bill as complex as this (try reading it, it's referenced in the CBO site I posted above) is best left to experts and then digested as necessary by congresspeople and their aides, who have plenty of time to consider and come to a reasonable understanding of the nature of the bill before they vote on it.
     As I understand the bill in its CBO recap and a reading of the bill itself, the nature of the trades specified as being exempt from Dodd-Frank's exclusions are hedging transactions similar in nature to those of, say, a corn farmer using the futures and options markets to hedge against a downside risk in prices, or a grain processor hedging against an upside risk in the price of that commodity.  In  this case, the risks being mitigated are more along the lines of volatility in the  interest rate and currency markets.  As with all legitimate hedging transactions, this is all about risk-transfer, not risk-creation.  Those kinds of trades are essentially being brought back into the fold of exemptions allowed by Dodd-Frank.  In the meantime, all generally accepted and required standards of recording and reporting will be a part of these trades.  As ever, transparency is of the essence
     That the bill passed with 292 ayes means that a sizable contingent of Democrats (70 to be exact) joined virtually all of their Republican counterparts in accepting the reasonableness of this legislation.  That  those same congressional types were aggressively lobbied by the financial institutions promoting the passage of H.R. 992 is indeed a sad and disgusting commentary that speaks more to the nature of how legislative business has to get done in this country than the substance of the bill itself.
     
     
    


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Yo! Politicos who publicly identify with Christ . . . where's that Biblically mandated compassion these days?

     As I prepare my thoughts for Sunday services tomorrow, which is the first Sabbath after the automatic cut in food stamps took place a day ago,  I'm wondering how many of the committed Christians in Congress, generally, and among Republicans, specifically, are considering the consequences of the summary end of the the SNAP (Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program--food stamps, for short) benefits extension that was granted a few years back as part of Washington, D.C.'s economic stimulus program.  For that matter, I wonder if a sense of moral crisis occurred within the Obama family, whose backgrounds as community activists within some of the most financially hard-up neighborhoods in Chicago must make them acutely sensitive to the nutrition needs of the poor in this country.  From the figures, it looks like the typical family on this program is losing anywhere from 5% to 10% of their benefits.  The Feeding America organization says that the typical food stamp recipient got about $1.50/meal, so the cuts will probably take a dime or better off each meal.  Put another way, USA Today calculates that the cut will cost the average SNAP-enrolled family of four the equivalent of 21 meals a month.  That strikes me as pretty harsh. 
     I wonder if the Obamas and other Christians who are in the political class in D.C. will think about this when they attend services tomorrow morning.  At some point I hope they encounter Isaiah 58 and take these words to heart:  If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.  Their hearts may be hardened by the real problems of mismanagement and fraud that I have no doubt are embedded in SNAP, but in their pursuit of purging those issues out of the program, I think they're doing some significant damage to millions (there are 47 million of them now) of Americans who simply need this help in order to get some decent food into their systems every day.
     Yes, the extended benefits were set to expire on October 31, and yes, everybody was informed well in advance.  That doesn't mean there shouldn't have been some consideration and discussion of the issue--after all, this federal government has been dealing with having to extend deadlines for years now, and it seems to me that extensions are typically granted.  Why should some consideration of a program extension affecting our neediest class of citizens be exempt from the process? 
     As a Republican, I'm particularly chagrined by the blithe dismissal of our claim to being "compassionate conservatives" as nary a peep from officials in our party in defense of extending these benefits was forthcoming.  And for those who often make a public show of their commitment to Jesus Christ and his teachings, I'm extremely disappointed that there was no attention paid to the moral quandary attached to the  taking of food away from the poor.
     

    
    

Thursday, October 31, 2013

C'mon, man. The fight over Keystone XL is all about enviro-symbolism, not enviro-substance.

     What else can you conclude after reading a study done by the Congressional Research Service (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42537.pdf) completed last March that calculates the pipeline would add the miniscule sum of anywhere between 0.06 percent to 0.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions per year?  In a long New York Magazine piece by Jonathan Chait that came out this week, Chait contrasts this with what he calls a much more pressing need to reduce emissions via EPA mandates at American power plants that environmentalists say would cut greenhouse gas production by 10% in this country, or about 30 times as much as would be produced by Keystone.
     Yet it's Keystone XL that draws all the attention and the big demonstrations.  I don't recall ever seeing a march on Washington by enviro-activists devoted exclusively to demanding new emission standards for power plants.  In the meantime, plans for running the pipeline through South Dakota and neighboring states remain on hold while the Obama administration continues to grapple with the political elements that are holding up a long overdue final resolution on the pipeline.
     And as this is going on, do we hear a peep about plans to implement new emission standards on power plants?  Not much in the way of enviro-agitation on that front.  On another, probably just as sensitive a matter, enviro-concern is real and needs to be addressed, albeit on a more localized level.  This one is all about accidents, spillage and subsequent contamination.  I attended the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission hearing on Transcanda's proposal for Keystone XL a few years ago and listened to a lot of concerns that were raised and reasonably addressed.  Transcanada's contingencies, safeguards and reaction plans were thoroughly laid out and passed muster with the Commissioners and, I gathered, the affected landowners who would deal directly with the issues.  As to the question about whether tar sands-derived crude oil would make leakage more likely, the National Academy of Sciences, in a report issued last Summer (http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=18381) says no to that concern.
     So why the delay in reaching a decision?  I think it's obvious that political considerations are holding sway over practical and operational ones.  In the meantime, efforts at making much more significant inroads on gas emissions via stringent power plant regulations aren't getting the attention they merit, lost as they are in the noise over Keystone XL.  South Dakota stands to gain from the pipeline's construction and maintenance, as does the entire country.  I hope our congressional delegation starts pressing the White House for a decision once and for all. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

There's A Whole Lotta SDGOPSenatePrimary Shakin' Goin' On

     What was that about watching sausage-making and politics?  Regarding what is turning out to be some intriguing and spirited pre-Primary jockeying among Republicans that might be vying for the vacating Senator Tim Johnson's U.S. Senate seat,  my good friend Cory Heidelberger who runs South Dakota's best political blog, The Madville Times, just put together an intriguing piece about the money- and influence-go-round.  Quoting Cory:

"The Rounds for Senate campaign paid Republican blogger Pat Powers $2,136 for advertising during the third quarter of 2013. According to Rounds's Q3 FEC report, Team Rounds paid Powers's Dakota Campaign Store $636 on August 17 and $1,500 on September 27.
The Rounds-enriched Powers natters away this morning about Rounds's impressive campaign war chest but declines to mention his own appearance in the FEC report. Power pages through his (forgive me, Rounds's) opponents' FEC reports and razzes Stace Nelson but praises Annette Bosworth, which fits perfectly with the Rounds camp strategy of weakening their greatest threat by puffing up non-contenders.
I've previously written about the caution with which we should read Ken Santema's blog posts about the U.S. Senate race in South Dakota, given that he is an official member of Rep. Stace Nelson's official and sprawling statewide campaign team. Santema has been transparent about his preference for Nelson in the Senate race. Santema makes this support clear by contributing $250 to Nelson's campaign (as reported on Nelson's Q3 report to the FEC). His bias is open, honest, and unbought.
Meanwhile, Pat Powers has adopted a fa├žade of neutrality in the GOP primary. He has rebranded himself on his blog and Twitter as @SDSenate2014, a clearinghouse for "reporting" on the highly watched Senate race.
Let us be absolutely clear: Mike Rounds is paying Pat Powers for advertising in this campaign. A politician advertising on a political blog is not by itself news. I've run advertisements for candidates, some whom I've supported, and some who wouldn't necessarily get my vote. When I have run such ads, I've made clear where I stand.
Pat Powers isn't doing that. He's pretending to be neutral while taking thousands of dollars from the one candidate whom his posts favor. That payment and poorly faked neutrality together call into question the reliability of any "analysis" Pat Powers offers on the Republican Senate primary in South Dakota.
p.s.: I have not caught mention of any other bloggers, myself included, in the FEC Q3 reports. But Rounds's Q3 report shows that he pays slimy campaigner Dick Wadhams gets $3,500 a month for advice."

     For all the intra-party intrigue, though, to me the race is still about who can best protect this seat from being influenced by the Republican Party's death-wishers, aka the Tea Party.  Former Governor Mike Rounds' comments (albeit after the fact) about the futility of  the Tea Party-orchestrated U.S. Government shutdown and near default on the federal debt give him the inside track as far as I'm concerned, so for now--I like Mike.  This doesn't mean I can't go into "I used to like Mike" mode.  I intend to stick with the candidate who will be utterly committed to South Dakota's, not the Tea Party's, best interests.  That mantle is still up for grabs. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Will somebody please pass The Farm Bill? Thank you.

     What gives with all the delays in the Farm Bill?  Apparently there is a cabal in the House of Representatives, mainly consisting of mutant Republicans who are identified with the Tea Party that seem plenty incensed over the fact that about 47 million Americans are using food stamps these days.  They're so mad about this that they want to strip food stamps away from the Farm Bill that's been under review for the past couple of years. They want to separate it out so that the program can be politically manhandled and stripped of $40 billion of funding over the next decade. The resulting legislative standoff has been an irritant within the country's ag community for a couple of years now, a  problem that has suddenly grown acute for the ranching industry in western South Dakota, which needs disaster assistance provisions in the Farm Bill right now, considering the mega-damage that was done during the early October blizzard.
     The mystifying aspect of all this to me is just why people are so mad or surprised about the surge in food stamp usage these days.  The U.S. Census Bureau calculates that nearly 50 million Americans are living in poverty (as of 2010), a deplorable number that hasn't been helped by the economy-stalling tactics of those darlings of the Tea Party in Congress who never miss an opportunity to scare the bejeebers out of the country by playing chicken with the federal government's  fundamental financial and administrative operations. Shutdowns, debt limits, fiscal cliffs, sequesters--this is getting ridiculous.  It certainly isn't doing anything to change the fact that 46 million of us are poor by definition--so why on earth is anybody shocked to learn that about that same number of Americans use food stamps in order to eat a decent meal every day?
     More to the political point, why aren't the powerfully collective voices of the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union being heeded when they say they unequivocally oppose splitting the Farm Bill?  As a practical matter, getting a comprehensive bill passed makes planting and marketing decisions possible, especially just now as the next crop year is about to begin.  And as a fact of economic life, taking that much ($4 billion a year) food purchasing power out of the market is a financial detriment to the industry--a reality that has to come home to a state like South Dakota  and serves as a reminder that the whole food stamp program has historically been a win-win for both consumers and producers. 
      We should welcome the news that congressional reps in both houses will be taking up the farm bill again next week and remind our delegation that a unified bill is in the best interests of South Dakota. 
    

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Surrealism and the GOP's mismatched parts

     Pondering my response to "jerry" who posed the following question to me over at South Dakota's best political blog, Madville Times, the word "surreal" kept coming up.  "jerry's" question:  "How is it that the Republican party, a party that prides itself on being able to form legislation that is business friendly, could wind up with such a bunch of absolutely ignorant people with no savvy whatsoever about how business operates?"  My answer is, I don't get it either.  One day we're seeing a party that holds up, among other things, payments to millions of people (both in and out of government) who live from paycheck to paycheck, next day we're seeing this party singing "Amazing Grace" in unison, in Congress, completely oblivious to the financial pain they were unleashing on so many Americans.  Then soon after, these people, who are committed to maintaining a business- and free enterprise-friendly environment for the great economic engine that is the United States, voted by a huge majority within their own caucus, 144 in toto, to force the United States Treasury to default on its debt obligations, which, if cooler heads hadn't prevailed, would have set off a global financial armageddon that was sure to raise interest rates on the lifeblood of every business:  money.  See what I mean by surreal?  Salvadore Dali himself couldn't have painted a political landscape with more mismatched elements.
     How did this come to pass?  My thinking is that it had to do with the spending excesses of the G.W. Bush administration, which properly enraged the GOP's conservative elements who themselves were wondering why this government was building up deficits recklessly, their qualms basically justified by the crash and subsequent recession of '08 and '09.  Enter the Tea Party and its hold on a big enough chunk of GOP officials in Washington to have the political leverage to call some shots.  Trouble with all that is that the shot-calling is a one-note reiteration:  cut spending, cut spending, cut spending.  Never mind anything else, just cut spending.  That would be nice except that real life is more complicated than that, real political life infinitely more so. 
     Now this party that has traditionally identified with Main Street, Wall Street and all the business centers between and beyond is the party that creates one crisis after another, completely undoing the very environment in which American business has always thrived:  stability.  The contradictions are stark, the incompetence, glaring.  I suggest that the next time they make a public show of singing Amazing Grace that these Republican mutants reverse the main lyric:  "I once was found, but now I'm lost."
     
    
    

    

Dear Congresswoman Noem: About that back pay for furloughed workers . . .

       . . . I see that federal workers who were furloughed during the shutdown will receive back pay for the days they missed.  That seems reasonable enough to me, but I'm wondering, is there any way that private sector workers who were effectively furloughed by the loss of business incurred during the shutdown can get their back pay too?  My lodging business was down somewhere between 30%-40% during the shutdown of National Parks in western South Dakota, so naturally my housekeeping staff lost a proportionate amount of pay due to lack of available work.  As you were an instigator of the shutdown and a proponent of extending it, I feel you have some responsibility for the financial discomfort incurred as a result.
     The loss of revenues dedicated to my fixed expenses and some operating costs (utilities, primarily) will also affect my bottom line, of course, but I'll be able to deal with them and ask for no assistance in meeting those obligations.  However, as my payroll is directly dependent on work created by tourists occupying rooms, I think it's only reasonable that as long as the U.S. government is caring enough to extend salaries to federal workers affected by the shutdown that privately employed workers receive the same consideration.
     Please feel free to contact me through the comments section of this blog regarding this matter.  Thanking you in advance, John Tsitrian.  
          

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Congresswoman Noem Sold Us Out

     Really, it's hard for me to accept the fact that South Dakota Congresswoman Kristi Noem abandoned any commitment to the economic well-being of her constituents by voting no on the House resolution that passed last night, October 16, which keeps the United States Treasury solvent for a few months and re-opens the U.S. Government itself, also for a couple of months.  It's probably impossible to come up with the full negative economic impact of the recent shutdown on western South Dakota's tourism economy and its rollover effects into the general economy, but a good picture will emerge when sales tax revenues from the Black Hills and Badlands region are posted, generally a couple of months from now.  Some of my peers in the lodging industry are circulating numbers that show drops of anywhere from 30% to 50% for the shutdown period itself, with smaller but still noticeable losses for the few days immediately preceding the shutdown.  In her pursuit of a much larger, if chimerical, agenda of undoing the U.S. government's duly passed and Constitutionally-sanctioned healthcare reform law, Congresswoman Noem is apparently willing to inflict some serious economic pain on her fellow South Dakotans, a notion that I find abhorrent, considering her constituents' best interests should be the main priority in her work as our representative. 
     By going this route, Noem and her fellow naysayers seem to have given up using the power of intelligent and passionate persuasion to convince the country that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) should be tossed aside, and instead are using the gimmicks associated with legislative manuevering to starve it of funding.  That serious economic damage (nationally, to the tune of $24 billion during the 16-day shutdown, per Standard & Poor's) and a possible global economic catastrophe are the upshots of this strategy seem to be irrelevant  to  Noem and her political allies in Congress. Writing as a former Chicago-based bond and options trader (I was a member of the Chicago Board Options Exchange from the late '70s to the early '90s) with some insight into how the global economic superstructure is interconnected, I'd have to say this approach, if successful, would be a pyrrhic victory at best.  De-funding Obamacare by selling out the nation's economy doesn't really make a whole lot of sense to me, and I wonder if Congresswoman Noem has the intellect and education to see how that particular set of dots connect. 
    That she apparently lacks compassion for the plight of everyday South Dakotans who've experienced some shrinkage in their paychecks thanks to the shutdown Noem and her cohorts engineered and were willing to extend into the uncharted waters of U.S. Treasury default is a given.  That the Congresswoman hasn't come up with a cogent explanation as to why economic suffering among her constituents justifies her politically quixotic aim of undoing Obamacare is a mystery.  I get her fixation on the big picture.  What I don't get is her disregard for the little one--that landscape consisting of the working folks in South Dakota who've just paid a serious price for Noem's intransigence. 
     
     

Friday, October 11, 2013

This is rich. We can run Mt. Rushmore from right here in South Dakota.

     Besides the obvious embarrassment that South Dakota's congressional delegation should be feeling about the fact that their fed up constituents figured out a way to run Mount Rushmore National Park with their own money and resources in spite of the federal government shutdown, our elected federal officials might consider contemplating the magnitude of the precedent that has just been set.  If it's this easy to turn over the operations of a federally owned and operated facility to state and local private interests, why just stop at a national park?
     Apparently there doesn't seem to be much Constitutional or statutory hindrance to turning some federal operations over to states and the citizens within those states, as the ease of the operational transfer of Mount Rushmore didn't take more than a few days to accomplish.  Ownership is another matter, of course, and it does give the federal government a lot of leverage when it comes to making sure that local managers don't carry things to marketing extremes.  Just the same,  letting states and localities, in partnership with private interests, come up with the money to run federally owned assets seems like a promising idea from the start.  It's probably reasonable to expect operations similar to the well-run and profitable Custer State Park in South Dakota's Black Hills to emerge.
     For one thing, locally designed operations are probably likely to fit area needs better than federally mandated procedures.  I have no doubt, for example, that if state and private interests were to operate Mount Rushmore in perpetuity that marketing innovations will develop in a way that would lead to a significant increase in visitation.  Same would hold true for, say, the ferret re-introduction program occurring in the National Grasslands adjacent to Badlands National Park, a woefully under-promoted venture that would have a great deal of potential for adding visitors to the region.  Getting some local public-private management of the Grasslands would probably develop some ideas in that regard, as well as adding some profit-oriented ideas for marketing the Grasslands as visitor destinations in their own right. 
     Obviously, given my background and business pursuits, I'm oriented to tourist visitation issues, no trifling interest considering that tourism is South Dakota's second largest industry.  But I think the potential for the concept of getting more local control of operational issues at federal installations is worth considering.  If the federal government's shutdown lasts long enough for the South Dakotans primed to operate Mount Rushmore to develop a track record, my guess is that the concept will be thought of as an idea whose time has arrived.  Now if that doesn't jolt our elected federal officials into realizing that this shutdown may be touching off a revolution of sorts, nothing will. 
    

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Memo to Rep. Noem and Sens. Thune and Johnson: Thanks for nothing.

      Because of your intransigence and this subsequently stupid shutdown, I've had to cancel what would otherwise have been a productive workday for the housekeeping staff at my motel in western South Dakota.  Looks like tomorrow will be a similar story.  And the day after tomorrow?  Maybe you folks can tell me.  Talking around the trade, there are many hundreds of hard working South Dakotans who depend on the paychecks created by visitors to our shuttered national parks who AREN'T GETTING PAID.  Sorry I had to use caps, but apparently you seem to have missed this point, and if you didn't, I must ask, just who is it that you represent as you go about your duties and responsibilities in Washington?
     As for you, Representative Noem, I recall your constant mantra about it being time for an "adult conversation" regarding the issues involving South Dakota and this country shortly after you were elected.  Is this version of fingerpointing and rhetorical blame-gaming supposed to be your idea of that valued "adult conversation" you were promising to deliver?  It can't be, and considering that you and your counterparts in the House of Representatives can't put together a continuing resolution to fund the government without adding on demands related to your political agendas that have nothing to do with day to day functioning of our national parks, I'd like to know, just who are the adults in your chamber that are supposedly conversing like grown-ups? 
     Some readers of this blog recently gave me the what-for for suggesting that federal funding of the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery in Spearfish should be discontinued.  May I suggest that this absurdly cavalier and insensitive shuttering of our national parks is an example of why I wish the federal government would leave those facilities to local governments and/or private entrepeneurs to operate?  I note that Custer State Park, with its contract operators, is running as smoothly as ever.  Crazy Horse mountain near Hill City, which famously doesn't take a nickel of federal largesse, is open for business.  The Cleghorn Fish Hatchery in Rapid City is wide open for visitors who can see the operation first hand and get an excellent overview of the facility in its visitor center.  But Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, Wind Cave?  Sorry to say they're closed because stubborn and inflexible elected officials, including those from South Dakota, just can't get it together in D.C.  Meantime, my employees will come up short this month, as will my business's bottom line, as will South Dakota people and enterprises throughout the Black Hills/Badlands region.  You call this representation?  Please. 
          

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Quick takes on the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery reprieve.

     It's a gem, well worth operating.  Don't know much about its need as a hatchery.  I see from SD Game, Fish and Parks data that fishing license numbers over the past twenty years have declined significantly, hitting a peak of around 100,000 in the late '90s to a more current 75,000 in '11.  Does that mean D.C. Booth is redundant, considering the demand for stocked fish has declined?  I'd love to get an informed opinion from a fisheries expert on the subject. 
     On another level, its economic impact as an attraction, I see that in a joint letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Spearfish Mayor Dana Boke and U.S. Senator Tim Johnson urged continued funding for the Booth Hatchery not because of its need as a hatchery but because of its value to the Spearfish economy.  They successfully argued to officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the 150,000 annual visitors to the hatchery add $2.1 million to the Spearfish economy, a number worth considering in the context of Spearfish's 2012 (per the SD Department of Revenue) taxable sales report, which comes in at $374 million.  2 million bucks is 2 million bucks, of course, but in the bigger picture it's definitely something to sneeze at. I'll set aside the Kleenex for now, but you get the idea.    
     My own take goes to a third level.  What's with expecting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to subsidize a local tourist attraction?  Given the Booth Hatchery's drop-in-the-bucket status as an adornment to Spearfish's economy, I'd think it would be a realistic task to get local investors to step in and find ways to fund it from inside the pockets of those who benefit economically from the facility.  Seems to me that the federal government could find other, more pressing, needs to fill with our money, particularly at a local level.  Head Start programs that recently got cut might be a great place to start.  I can only imagine the size of the laundry list of other, much worthier programs.  Looks to me like our political class could rewrite Izaak Walton's classic and re-title it "The Compleat Finagler."
    

Thursday, September 12, 2013

     Maloula, mon amour. I see rebel forces have just entered it.   I fell in love with this ancient city in Syria while visiting there in 2007, during the days when former U.S. Senator James Abourezk (D-SD) was putting together informal tour groups that traveled from Sioux Falls to Damascus in a much-appreciated effort at getting Americans to know Syria and its people a bit better.  The trip lasted a little over a week and included extensive overland ventures throughout the country.  I saw ancient Roman ruins near Palmyra, spending a good part of that day in a Bedouin encampment nearby.  I saw the Israeli-shattered city of Al Quinetra, destroyed by vindictive, departing Israeli troops who were withdrawing per the agreement that ended the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  I saw a high-rise Palestinian refugee community in Damascus, plastered with outsized pictures of Yassir Arafat.  I saw the Golan frontier, policed by uniformed United Nations troops. These were Sikhs from India, turbaned, and sporting neatly trimmed beards, all of them speaking perfect, non-idiomatic English as they patrolled the neutral zone.
     And I saw Maloula.  It's one of a handful of villages where Aramaic, the language spoken during the New Testament, is still the common tongue.  That everyone also seems to speak English is par for the course nowadays, but Aramaic is still the language of the streets and signs. One of my traveling companions and I had broken away from the main group and cadged a ride in Damascus to this place, which we entered at the spot where a sturdy, brick church that was built during the 3rd century dominates the town.  We entered the structure with some natural trepidation, but once we got into an enclosed courtyard all seemed okay.  A few nuns were going about some business, nodding at us as we passed.  Then we saw a priest, THE priest from what I eventually gathered, and engaged him in a very easygoing all-English conversation.  Educated in Egypt, his English was flawless.
     I won't use his name because what goes around the internet may well come around, not to me, but to him.  I've wondered lately if the Greek Catholic (that was the denomination of the church in Maloula) priest who was publicly beheaded a few weeks ago north of Maloula by a rebel faction that obviously has it in for Christians might have been the same cleric.  I have no way of knowing.  I grieve for the lost soul, whoever it was, not just because of the situation but because the man I met in the church in Maloula was so gentle, as curious about us as we were about him.  Probably sensing our hesitation,  he abruptly ended a lull in the conversation to invite us into the sanctuary, a beautifully adorned enclosure filled with icons, some encrusted with precious stones and metal, some just plain wood or cloth, many of them dating back to the early years of Christianity.  We sat in the front pew while he stared at us with a steady, if slightly bemused,  gaze, reciting the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, then using the same language to preach a brief sermon.
     The content of the sermon will forever remain unknown.   So will the disposition of the priest, those nuns, that church now that rebel forces, some of them virulently anti-Christian, have occupied  a simple, unassuming little town where the inhabitants have lived a life, spoken a tongue, that have a heritage whose timeline includes  the passage of those who founded Christianity.  One need not embrace the spirituality of the place or the events that transpired there to know that a precious place is now on the cusp of its final catastrophe.  Whither Maloula?  Maybe something in that unknown sermon had a clue. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

     I wish the Steve Jarding drumbeat that's developing among Democrats in South Dakota would switch over from a "please run for something in '14, Steve" to a more defined urge, namely, "please run for the House of Representatives, Steve."  Jarding is the South Dakota native (who still has his home in the state) who teaches Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School.  He was instrumental in Senator Jim Webb's come-from-behind Senatorial victory in Virginia a few years back and no doubt has a well-developed network of political friends and contacts on a national scale.  He's dynamic, articulate and exceedingly bright.  I'd support him in a heartbeat if he decides to run for Congress.  But for governor?  Not so fast.
     The incipient "campaign" to get him running has a well-developed presence and seems to be intent on getting Jarding some name-recognition through the social media, including Youtube videos that highlight his dynamo-like presence, which is indeed impressive.  He'd make a great advocate for South Dakota as the state's sole representative among 500+ counterparts that crowd the chamber, given his loud, brash, articulate and brilliant persona, all of which will work in tandem with a national reputation both within and without his party.
     But those qualities and background that I think would make him a good, possibly great, U.S. Rep aren't the same as the personal style that would work in an executive role like Governor of South Dakota.  That job takes persuasion and political finesse, requiring a didactic, not a declaratory, approach. 
    More to the political point, Jarding's incumbent opponent, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard, will be difficult to unseat for the usual built-in political reasons that SD Republicans have always had to their advantage (mainly a sizable registration edge, around 6%).  In 2010 Daugaard beat his Democratic opponent by a 61-38 margin.                                                                                                                      
     No doubt some of Daugaard's decisions, particularly the one to decline Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, will swing some support away from him, but given the overall state of South Dakota's economy, which by almost every measure is in much better shape than that of the nation, I doubt that compelling numbers of voters will have much incentive to toss him out of office.  Fact is, though I disagree with Daugaard on the Medicaid issue and some of the school funding and management issues, I'll support him for re-election. 
     Steve Jarding should play to his strengths and give South Dakota that powerful persona of his in the place where it can do some serious good, the U.S. House of Representatives.