Thursday, February 27, 2014

This Is Interesting. A Few Weeks Ago I Told Powertech Uranium To Get Lost. Well, They Did . . . Sort Of

     Powertech Uranium is the concern that has been trying to set up a uranium mine--known as Dewey-Burdock--in the southern Black Hills for a few years now.  Their proposed process involves messing with the groundwater in the area using what's known as "in situ" mining technology, a method of extracting uranium that has its risks, the principal risk being groundwater contamination for many, many, many years to come--maybe forever.  I know that federal regulators have given their nod, but still get queasy when I think about environmentally-greenlighted projects that have gone awry just the same.  Ask those folks who live around the Yellowstone River in Montana how they feel about the environmental impact statements that got approved by federal authorities before things went haywire there.  Same goes for those poor folks in West Virginia whose water smells like H-E-double-L.  Risks that may seem reasonable on paper can go catstrophically wrong, and I fear that the uranium mine proposed in the southern Hills could have a double-edged follow through:  first off, the mine itself could go bad.  Then there's the likelihood that  its presence may open the floodgates for similar speculators looking to extract value out of our Hills, leave a royal mess, and ship the profits elsewhere.  I just don't like it.
     Anyway, I said as much a little while back and suggested that Powertech take a hike.  Well, in a way they did.  All this talk about the company piqued my interest in its financial condition, and as I noted before, the company is kind of a joke.  In the third quarter of last year it abruptly wrote down the value of a Colorado mining property by 85%, just like that.  As to its financial statement and balance sheet for that quarter, pee-yew.  Even by  "penny stock" standards, the component of the equities markets where Powertech had been languishing at less than 10 cents a share, the numbers were head-shakingly abysmal.  Basically, Powertech was on the ropes--a point made very clear by a comment in that Q3 report which showed that it had everything riding on getting Dewey-Burdock permitted:  "The Company’s focus is furthering its permitting applications at its Dewey-Burdock project.  Therefore it will incur future losses which cast significant doubt as to the Company's ability to continue as a going concern." 
    Okay, we know that the company was hanging by a thread.  It obviously needed a cash lifeline, which it got last year from a firm called Azarga Resources in the way of a capital injection that would presumably lead to a merger with Azarga.  Well,  the Azarga merger just happened, the new company being named Azarga Uranium.  The news release dated yesterday tells the story of Powertech's desperation.  A single sentence in the announcement says it all:  "(The merger) is intended to reduce Powertech's exposure to permitting risk at Dewey Burdock."  Azarga has significant interests in mines around the world, per the news release, but it isn't a public company as yet, at least until regulators at the Toronto Stock Exchange, where Powertech had been listed, give the go-ahead for the new enterprise's stock to trade publicly.
     I think this is important news that should trouble opponents--me included--of the Dewey-Burdock project.  Where Powertech had been just barely hanging on, financially, and staked everything on Dewey-Burdock, its new incarnation as Azarga Uranium probably gives it significantly more financial staying power.  On the upside, a company like Azarga, with extensive interests in mines and deposits in the United States and central Asia, may not think the trouble and expense of developing Dewey-Burdock is worth the permitting risk that apparently hamstrung Powertech for the past few years.  We'll see.  Much as I'm glad  that Powertech finally ran out of patience and resources to pursue this thing, I'd be wary of Azarga's intentions.  This is likely to go on for a while.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

It Ain't All That Cheap To Live In South Dakota. Will The State's Leadership Ever Get That?

The most disheartening meme to come out of our elected officials who try to  justify the low wage structure of employees in this state, particularly teachers, is the hackneyed old argument about the low cost of living in South Dakota.  I commented on this last month after reading a story about the effects of low teacher salaries here.  The Rapid City Journal piece noted that low salaries were having a negative effect on our schools' abilities to hire and retain teachers.  Predictably, and rather lamely, Governor Daugaard's office, through its spokesman Tony Venhuizen, responded, "the salary is lower if you don't adjust for the fact that we have very low taxes and the lowest cost of living." While the cost-of-living excuse may have been true for a long, long time, that old chestnut by now has been roasted into oblivion.  The data just don't support what I consider to be a rather ill- and over-used rationale for South Dakota's lousy wage structure, particularly among its public employees, and even more specifically among its teachers.  Thanks to my good friend Cory Heidelberger, whose Madville Times is still the best political blog in the state, I found some information that convincingly contradicts the notion that you can live in South Dakota on the cheap.
     Not only does South Dakota rank way above the "lowest cost of living" states, it actually sits in right about the middle of the pack in the U.S.A.  The Council for Community and Economic Research's 2013 ACCRA report rates SD as 31st in the country when it comes to cost of living.  Those who would question or dispute ACCRA's methodology should consider that it is a widely used resource for cost-of-living data, its clients being researchers, private corporations--even the United States Census Bureau.  In fact, I have seen challenges to ACCRA's methodology from credible sources, but have yet to see any of those challengers produce contradictory data.   I invite readers to provide me data from other sources.  In the interim I stand by my conclusion that South Dakota is far from a "low cost of living" state.
     On this point I'm sure I have plenty of company among those who try to squeak by on South Dakota wages.  That Governor Daugaard keeps pouring millions of dollars into economic development schemata that  have yielded marginal, at best, results--along with an occasional fiasco-de-la-fiascos like the Northern Beef Plant in Aberdeen--seems like a fool's errand, given that our regional wage scale ranking is nothing to write home about, much less promote to potential investors and emigres. In a region that includes South Dakota and its bordering states, SD's median wage of $12.78/hr is the lowest of the bunch, according to ACCRA data supplied by Madville Times.  The average among the six other states is nearly $14/hr.
     Why a fool's errand?  Because we keep bemoaning the lack of workers in South Dakota, but never draw a line between that dot and the dot that says, "we pay lousy wages here."  Why would we expect workers to come to a state where it's likely to cost as much to live as it does almost anywhere else in the Midwest--and react with dismay that they won't come because they'll get paid the lowest median wage in the region?  I mean . . . duh.  I've written before about South Dakota's culture of complacency and its culture of denial.  On this business of "lowest cost of living" I'll add one more:  a culture of self-delusion. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

How Come Cutting Taxes For The Rich Stimulates The Economy, But Cutting Taxes For The Poor Doesn't?

     I see that Sioux Falls Democratic state rep Marc Feinstein's annual effort at eliminating the state sales tax on food went down the tubes again at this year's legislative session.  Seems like its biggest obstacle is concern in our Republican-dominated legislature  that the proposal doesn't include a guaranteed way of replacing those taxes, thereby making the plan revenue-neutral.  Feinstein's plan would have raised sales taxes by an equal amount on non-edible purchases, but that didn't pass muster.  Apparently there was no evidence showing that the replacement sales tax would make up for the revenue losses incurred by eliminating the tax on food.  So for now, South Dakota will remain one of a handful of states with this most regressive of all taxes, regressive because it takes a bigger share of a poor person's income than a rich person's. Why? Because the poor spend more proportionally on food than the rich. Some, me included, call this unfair.
     But forgetting about the fairness/unfairness component of it for a moment, let's consider its repudiation of core Republican taxation philosophy.  As a lifelong Republican myself, I've always believed wholeheartedly in the traditional GOP  notion that cutting taxes ultimately leads to more tax revenues for the government.  Why?  The general principle is that  setting money loose into the private sector is a much more efficient way of getting that money to grow the economy than by gobbling it up as taxes.  Though this is standard Republican economic fare, even Democratic icon JFK enunciated it when he cut taxes way back in the early 1960s.  Similar measures in the early 1980s and early 2000s occurred, all of them with a stimulative effect on the economy. Though not directly related to sales taxes,  the well-known "Laffer Curve" (created by University of Southern California Economist Arthur Laffer back in the 1970s) showing the connection between tax rates and tax revenues is often used to support the general notion that taxes can have a detrimental effect on tax revenues if imposed beyond certain levels.  John F. Kennedy, speaking of his proposed tax cuts in 1962 said, "the soundest way to raise (tax) revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now." 
the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates
the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates
the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates
     Based on real-life experience and academic support, the idea of lower taxes leading to more government revenues is one that I've always supported, and the same goes for the leadership of my party.  As I also subscribe to the simple notion that all taxes are income taxes, I believe the principle applies to sales taxes.  This leads me to wonder why the principle isn't applied to eliminating sales taxes on food.  By doing so, it puts more cash into the hands of our economy's most energetic component--consumers.  What's particularly puzzling is why the Republicans who dominate South Dakota's state leadership don't see it the same way, consistent as it is with their party's central economic principle.  We always brag about South Dakota being a low tax state as a means of enticing investment into it, but never seem to apply  that pitch to the ordinary Joes and Janes who might be likely to move here only to find out that they're stuck with taxes on their food, unlike most of the states that they'd consider moving to in the rest of the country.
     I think we need to get our story straight when it comes touting our tax burden.  No personal and corporate income taxes make for a good story--but when it comes to telling potential investors that their employees will have to pay a greater share of their incomes on food than their bosses, we seem to clam up.  Not a good thing, actually.  Somebody with some clout should look into this. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

I Pledge Allegiance To The Pledge Of Allegiance . . . But Would Rather Say It At My Time And Choosing, Not Somebody Else's.

     Much as I love the words, meanings and traditions of our Pledge of Allegiance, I think reciting it at a time and place chosen by others is coercive and goes against the grain of the Pledge's ultimate assertion, that we live in a nation that is committed to "liberty and justice for all."  When I'm at one of my VFW gatherings, which I attend at my own free will, and I'm asked to lead the Pledge, I actually get some goose bumps, I really do.  The moment is rich with ceremony and tradition, the words redolent of a commitment I once made to put on a uniform that said "United States Marine Corps", which led to my faithfully following orders to stop bullets in Vietnam for thirteen months. The questionable motives and outcomes of that war notwithstanding,  the Marine Corps does not have a prouder old vet, nor does the Pledge of Allegiance have a more enthusiastic believer in its ideals.  As a professed Christian, I'm certainly okay with the words "under God," but have no qualms about those who'd prefer to skip the phrase when choosing to participate in its recitation.
     After all, isn't that the essence of "liberty and justice?"  We're free to be who we want to be in this country.  If  I were a child who was growing up in a home that finds it intolerable, for whatever reason, to be forced to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I would be feeling like my liberties were denied when I had to set aside time from every school day to participate in a recitation of the pledge.  Even if I weren't forced to actually say the Pledge, I'd be required to hand over my time to a ritual that goes against the grain of my beliefs.  That's not the standard of Americanism that is the essence of the Pledge of Allegiance.  This is why I can't support some legislation being discussed in South Dakota that would "require that the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States be recited at the start of each school day in every public school classroom."
     First off, I don't like state legislators mandating what goes on inside our public school classrooms.  Left to their politically-driven devices, elected officials can come up with any variety of activities or curricular requirements that have less to do with education, more to do with indoctrination.  My general view is that elected officials should stay out of content decisions when it comes to classroom time.  To those who say this conversation is much ado about very little--after all, the Pledge of Allegiance requires a mere 45 seconds to recite--I say their view trivializes a very serious principle:  is forcing government-mandated rituals on our students a legitimate function of our elected officials?  I don't think so.  For example, I believe that mandated religious activities are repugnant while studies of religion are not only valid but an essential part of a complete education.  By that same standard I think that reciting the Pledge as a ritual is inappropriate, while studying the Pledge's contents as a course in American History and Government is a valuable component of a South Dakota student's education.  I'm confident  that young people studying it as part of a subject, discussing it, being tested on it, will get a much deeper understanding of the Pledge of Allegiance's glorious ideals than merely reciting it by rote as a necessary adjunct to being in class. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Memo To Rick Weiland: If You Have A Campaign, Elizabeth Warren Didn't Build It.

     Just when I've decided to suspend my support for Republican  Mike Rounds and his campaign for our SD Senate seat  comes some news. His likely Democratic opponent Rick Weiland  has suddenly inserted Elizabeth Warren into the race.   More on that in a bit, but first off,  I've always liked Rick, supported him with some money when he was running for Congress in the '90s, had a meet-and-greet for him at the house back then, generally found him to be passionate and articulate--and still do.  Because I've decided to put my support for the lavishly financed Rounds on hold until we get some definitive answers about his role--or lack thereof--in the Slaughterhouse EB-5 fiasco that materialized during his tenure as Governor, I've been turning my attention to Weiland again.  Weiland is running the grass-rootsiest of campaigns, probably hamstrung by tight finances, going around the state of South Dakota and meeting lots of individuals.  You gotta admire the spunk and the energy, which speak well of Rick's populist nature.  Polls that I've seen generally show Weiland behind by mid- to upper-single digits, which is roughly the same as the Republican to Democrat registration edge in South Dakota.
     Plain arithmetic makes it clear that for Weiland to win this race he has to woo a substantial number of Republicans over to his side.   How he expects to do that by identifying  with Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is mystifying, to say the least.  There's an informally designated "Elizabeth Warren Wing" in the Democratic Party, it's adherents, including Rick Weiland, generally regarded as unabashedly liberal.  Being unabashedly liberal is okay, but being irredeemably glib, as Elizabeth Warren was when she declared in 2011 that successful businesses aren't the creation of their owners, a line later condensed by Barack Obama into the famous "if you have a business--you didn't build that" statement in his 2012 campaign, is not the stuff of political acumen when running for office in a state like South Dakota.  Those who defend Warren's statement as accurate and reasonable when taken in context--she added that businesses succeed because of the government services and infrastructure that make them possible to exist--seem to be missing a crucial point:  those businesses not only pay a hefty chunk of dough to support the government, they're the ones that create the economic foundation that makes it possible for a society to exist in the first place.  But context isn't much of a fallback when defending this statement politically.  Sound bytes drive the political process these days, and I'm certain that Warren's sound byte will be turned against Weiland with much gusto and frequency if he intends to go around calling himself an Elizabeth Warren Democrat.
     South Dakota is a state with a long-standing economic superstructure supported by thousands of small businesses and farms, most of them family operations.  These are families that take a lot of justifiable pride in having the moxie and smarts to make their businesses succeed, probably all of them, to a one, pointing to many episodes in their lives when they had to sacrifice not just luxuries, but necessities, in order to keep their enterprises afloat.  You can imagine how they react by being told that they didn't build their businesses.  There's no amount of parsing, explaining, contextualizing or hedging the impact of that simple and self esteem-rattling statement of Warren's.  Rick needs to keep this lady at arm's length if he expects to get a sympathetic hearing from the many Republicans he'll need to win this election.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Is Senator John Thune Cruz-in' For A Political Bruz-in' ?

     I don't get Thune, the South Dakota U.S. Senator, and his  infatuation with the spell put on so many of his fellow Republicans by the Svengali of the self-destructionists in the GOP, Texas Senator Ted Cruz .  Thune has always been a pretty upfront and level-headed guy to me.  Fact is, I hosted his first political appearance in western SD's Pennington County in 1996 when he began his long shot and winning campaign for the House of Representatives.  I've admired the way his career has advanced and have been generally supportive along the way.  To me he always represented the common sense wing of the Republican Party, not necessarily bound to its high-pitched extremists, so much so that he even once snubbed the religious-right's principal spokesman James Dobson, whose Focus On The Family organization made a show of force at Mt. Rushmore a few years back.  I recall that Senator Thune took some heat from those folks as a result.  Made me feel pretty good about my support for Thune.
    That support has been tested a bit lately on a few issues.  For example, just before the Farm Bill was passed a few weeks ago he suggested that he might vote it down because of some Country Of Origin Labeling elements that were in it. He finally gave in, probably realizing that it was desperation time for South Dakota ranchers who needed federal help after their horrendous losses in last October's blizzard, not to mention farmers who were anxious to make this Spring's planting decisions based on what the Farm Bill contained.  Thune's attitude seemed rather coy--throwing out his ambivalence on the bill as a political teaser--and didn't reflect a serious concern about the well-being of his constituents and the urgency surrounding the bill's passage. 
    A few days ago, though, my support moved from being tested to being shaken.  Really, I could not believe that our Senator, who must understand that a rural state like South Dakota is ultra-dependent on its ties to the federal government, actually joined up with my GOP's suicidal right-wing and voted against raising the federal debt ceiling.  With that vote, Senator Thune was essentially affirming that he was okay with the financial market chaos that would inevitably have followed if the United States Treasury had been forced to default on our country's obligations.  This is total nuts-o-rama and the fallout would have worked its way down the financial food chain, all the way to the local bankers who sustain our state's small-town/rural economy.  Interest rates would immediately have ticked up and cash would have been very difficult to come by as panicky lenders would've been forced to hoard the green stuff as a reserve against a possible financial catastrophe. 
     Happily, cooler heads in the Republican Party prevailed, though it forced the GOP's senate leadership to go begging for enough of our party's votes to put the lifting of the debt-ceiling measure over the top and keep the United States Treasury solvent.  My extreme disappointment and dismay with Senator Thune is that we can't count him as one of the "cooler heads" in the Republican Party.  He seems to have succumbed to the hypnotic trance imposed by Cruz and other extreme rightists who'd rather see the United States descend into financial chaos than do the tough political work of dealing with legislation that would ease the burden on the country's budgetary deficit. This is a manifestation of political desperation, and it's really disturbing to me because I never thought of the self-composed Thune as one who'd resort to desperate tactics as a replacement for political engagement.  Never. 
     I guess we'll see if a pattern is developing.  Certainly hope not.  Country boy John Thune would appreciate an old rural saw that I think applies here:  There's nothing learned from the second kick of a mule.  Once is enough--more than enough for me.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sez Reality: "I Bite." Sez Kristi Noem: "Ouch!"

     Our Congresswoman Noem and her cognitively disconnected comrades on the ridiculous right continued their hapless crusade against reality the other day when they wouldn't support the debt limit increase, which cleared the U.S. House of Representatives despite their political temper tantrum.  Her Republican Party leader Boehner was able to convince almost 30 of her GOP comrades to join him in support of political fact-facing. Their collective grip on the real world was firm enough to muster up the votes needed to get the debt ceiling increased.  I don't know why Congresswoman Noem can't understand that shutting down the government or forcing the United States Treasury into default have catastrophic consequences, both on macro and micro levels.  On that score, my fellow Vietnam vets will understand when I say it's akin to our famous conundrum in that ill-starred war:  we had to destroy a village in order to save it.  These right wing anarchists essentially want to destroy our country as a means of trying to save it. 
     This is not only beyond stupidity, it's a tacit admission that they don't have the political skills and muscle power to get the budget reductions they insist are needed in order to avert their vision of a fiscal apocalypse.   It also shows a basic lack of understanding as to the best way to cut deficits: increase revenues, people.   In this case that translates into keeping an economy thriving and growing so that businesses and individuals have continually growing incomes from which continually growing taxes can be received.  How on earth is the business sector of our economy supposed to thrive when it constantly fears talks of budget stalemates, government shutdowns, and U.S. Treasury defaults as a backdrop for their day-to-day spending and investment decisions?  These showdowns cost money, and money is just what the federal government needs in order whack away at its deficits.
     By all means, Ms. Noem and your conservative ilk, keep fighting like the dickens for your positions on specific policies like Obamacare, federal benefits, military spending, whatever.  That's the kind of political conversation we need in this country and in the long run I think the results won't necessarily be perfect, but will work as well as can be expected.  The recent passage of the farm bill, far as it was from your initial expectations, was nevertheless suitable enough for you to sign on.  Though I believe you took more than your share of credit for its passage, your public air of resignation and acceptance at least coincided with the political realities of the day.
     But this business of threatening to close down the government or stymie our country's ability to service its debt?  It's just plain immaturity.  Not only that, it's a disservice to your many constituents in this at-large state with just one congressional rep.  You're sent to Congress to represent and get the best deal  for as many South Dakotans as possible on issue after issue.  Shutting the works down because your ideological allies in Washington have ripped your sense of  loyalty away from those you serve is no way to represent this state.  Need I remind you of how much your vote last Fall  to shut down Mt. Rushmore and other national parks in South Dakota cost the tourism industry here?  You can make your point without selling us out.
     This is why I was disappointed and dismayed that your name didn't show up on the list of Republicans who voted to lift the debt ceiling a few days ago.  It made me wonder what you thought it would accomplish to throw markets into turmoil, scare retirees into wondering if their pensions would turn up in their bank accounts, give buyers of U.S. Treasury securities second thoughts about loaning us money, and put an indelible smudge on the full faith and credit of the United States Government.  This is anarchy.  Its allure to those who can't deal with the problems of debt by resorting to it aren't leaders.  They're failures at doing their jobs. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Rounds, Rounds, Get A Rounds, I Get A Rounds . . . Or Maybe I Should Make That "South Dakota Dreamin' "

     Did Former Governor and present U.S. Senatorial candidate  Mike Rounds reprise his vanishing act?  Did he find a new place where the voters are hip or is he safe and warm in L.A?  The frustrations of trying to pin the man down were only aggravated this morning when  South Dakota's Department of Legislative Audit completed it's look-see  of the books of the Governor's Office of Economic Development covering the period of June, 2009 through June, 2013.  The results were released yesterday.  They cover a period overlapping the administrations of Rounds and his successor and current governor Dennis Daugaard.  Daugaard, who's up for re-election in November will have to come out and respond to the documents findings, posthaste. In fairness to him, he inherited the GOED that was overseen for eight years by his predecessor Rounds.  How Rounds will deal with the report's conclusions is my interest here .  Spending a few days in relative seclusion might be necessary as he develops an official reaction to this negative critique of his GOED's operations.  Considering that Rounds was Governor during the last two years of the report's coverage and six years prior to the period, I think it's fair to say that the troubles delineated by the auditors are issues that either developed during the Rounds administration or were allowed to fester, overlooked, if not totally ignored.
     The report was submitted by Auditor General Martin Guindon, and it yielded some quirky and troublesome findings.  It said "policies and procedures were inadequate for the monitoring of the contract with SRDC."  SRDC is the company that was involved with the "Slaughterhouse EB-5" fiasco in Aberdeen, costing South Dakota taxpayers millions of dollars that were provided to the enterprise via the Governor's Office of Economic Development.  The whole matter is still under investigation by federal authorities.  Another finding:  GOED "did not have a formal written policy and related procedures addressing ethics and potential conflicts of interest."  Apparently there was nothing specific to GOED employees regarding ethics and conflicts, just the one-size-fits-all handbook that is issued to all state employees.  A third finding is where the quirkiness resides: "Internal controls were inadequate over the processing of travel vouchers resulting in duplicate and unsupported travel payments."  Troublesome?  Of course.  Quirky?  More than that.  It's just plain weird.  Here's why:  "We also noted six invoices included for reimbursement in the travel vouchers that were identified as having been for translation services. These services involved having legal documents and seminar documents associated with the EB 5 program translated into other languages. All six invoices indicated that the payment on the invoice was to be made in cash. Five of the payments totaling $13,500.00 were associated with invoices from an individual that had handwritten on them “only invoice available” and the instruction on the invoice was to “pay by cash when next trip”. One invoice for $1,200.00 was on the letterhead of a Philippine hotel and had handwritten on it four names, “USD Cash $1,200.00”, “translation and interpretation”, and "only invoice available”. No receipts were included with the travel vouchers to support that payment was tendered for the services provided on the invoices. As a result, $14,700.00 in expenditures paid from the General Fund was not properly supported."  The travel vouchers in question were submitted by Richard Benda for travels to Asia to gather up investors for Slaughterhouse EB-5, and these translation service vouchers were presumably payments made during a trip to the Phillipines.  The "pay by cash" aspect lends some mystery to the proceedings that I believe has yet to be cleared up.
     So . . . we have indadequate policies and procedures, we have no written policy regarding ethics and conflicts of interest, and we have inadequate internal controls.  Governor Rounds, would it be too much to ask of you to come forward and explain how this culture of incompetence and inadequacy was cultivated during your tenure as Governor?  And while somebody's at it, how on earth did South Dakota get into a situation where it had to pay cash to unnamed nationals in order to get business done in the Philippines?  Will the weirdness over this thing ever stop? 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Memo to Powertech and its proposed uranium mine in the Black Hills: Get lost. Find yourself another place to glow in the dark.

      The Canadian mining company Powertech and its proposal to collect uranium by messing with the groundwater in the southern Black Hills has so many technical and scientific aspects to it that a layman like me can't hope to get a handle on the safety issues. However,  I'm certain there's risk to consider, and consider it I will. More than that, in every other respect, I think the idea is for the birds.
     First off, Powertech itself is a company that doesn't inspire much confidence in investors, who value the company at around 7 cents a share.  What it does inspire is skepticism.  Consider that for years, Powertech had been touting some land in Colorado as one of its principal assets, worth around $15 million.  Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, it comes out with a quarterly report last November that writes down the value of that land by about 85%.  Shareholders who've watched their stock fall to just pennies a share have every reason to wonder why they didn't get some sort of heads up about the sudden devaluation of their company. It may not run afoul of securities regulations and accounting standards, but it certainly makes  for a bad track record when it comes to investor relations.   I generally pay no attention to a "penny stock" like this one, but its presence in the Black Hills and its persistence in pursuing a uranium mining venture in the Hills, with all the attendant controversy about the environmental prospects, are impossible to brush off, let alone ignore altogether.
     Beyond what seems to be the shaky nature of the company itself, there's the matter of how much risk there actually is in a project like this--risk that extends beyond the immediate environmental impact.  I think it's a bad deal for South Dakota to project an image of itself as a place where potentially environmentally hazardous mining acitivities are occurring in one of the crown jewels of America's natural treasures, the Black Hills themselves.  If something actually were to go wrong with the Powertech project, you can only imagine the public relations consequences.  I mean, would you like to visit Three Mile Island, Love Canal, or that town in West Virginia that just had its water supply contaminated by a chemical spill?  Yuk.  The shock to the residents of those ill-starred locales was probably intensified by the fact that their property values plummeted, only adding to their dismay and anger.  Considering that tourism is probably the leading industry in South Dakota's Black Hills region, even the limited prospect of environmental degradation and its subsequent airing out in the national media should give all of us in the area some pause. 
     As a businessman I live in a world that calculates risk in terms of its rewards, and this Powertech uranium mine's risks are just not commensurate with its rewards. Those rewards, as near as I can tell, will be the profits that accrue to the company and a relative handful of jobs limited to the immediate surroundings in the southern Hills.  The risks?  Way too high in relation to the gains.  As to the water supply,  I understand that Powertech's proposal was  recently given a green light by federal environmental regulators.  But I have no doubt that the same could be said of any number of ventures that have gone awry.  Beyond that, putting a smudge on the pristine reputation of the Black Hills is something that isn't worth the risk of this mining venture--no way, no how.  Powertech can take a hike.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

SD Legislators Finally Get It: It Takes Good Money To Get Good People

     The institutionalized complacency--if not outright denial--regarding the teacher pay/hiring/retention situation in South Dakota's public schools doesn't extend to a similar problem in our state's legislature.  On a 7-2 vote yesterday, The Senate State Affairs Committee voted to endorse a bill (SB 142) that would raise lawmakers salaries from $6,000/yr to $10,000/yr.  Frankly, at $10k I think they're still undercompensated, considering how many hours these people have to spend every year, both during the session in Pierre and back home studying up on issues and dealing with constituents.  I support this raise.  I also support the reasons that our elected officials have advanced for getting it:  In the words of Rapid City Senator Craig Tieszen, the bill's author, "by limiting the pay of legislators, we are limiting our competition."
     Echoing that sentiment, Senator Dan Lederman from Dakota Dunes was reported as saying that "keeping the salary at $6,000 will prevent some people from running for office."  Again, I agree wholeheartedly and endorse the raise.  Who would want to limit our competitive requirements with less-than-market-worthy salaries?  And who would want to keep good people from engaging a job that doesn't pay them what the market thinks they're worth?  Not me, not Senator Tieszen, not Senator Lederman, and not the rest of the big majority in the Senate State Affairs Committee.
     I'm with you guys all the way on this.  Only thing is, why does this principle apply when it comes to legislative salaries but apparently stands for nothing in considering the tough economic environment that the legislature won't address regarding teacher salaries in South Dakota?  Paraphrasing Tieszen, I would note that "by limiting the pay of teachers, we are limiting our competition."  On the matter of competition, there's been plenty of documentation about the woeful salary comparisons between South Dakota's teachers and those of our neighboring states.  I provided extensive documentation when I researched and wrote about the issue a couple of months ago.  At about the same time the Rapid City Journal noted in an editorial that it's time for the state to open its eyes on the issue of teacher pay.  It's out there.  It's obvious.  And I think Senator Tieszen's principle about remaining competitive is one that he and the rest of the legislature should apply to the issue.
     Meantime, Senator Lederman's dictum that keeping salaries low will prevent people from entering a field is another principle that screams for application to the teacher salary/shortage problem in South Dakota.  I have no doubt that outstanding young educators beginning their careers in this part of the country are categorically bypassing South Dakota for better opportunities in adjacent states.  Actually, I know firsthand of some excellent young teachers who live in western SD but commute to their jobs in WY schools--sorry, no names or genders available.  This is sad.  Sadder still, if not altogether pathetic, is the South Dakota Legislature's stubborn refusal to even acknowledge that the problem exists.  That our reps see it as an issue with respect to their own jobs but can't extend their legislative sight horizons into the surrounding landscape that harbors our most important asset--our kids--is kind of amazing, actually.
     My hope is that these elected officials will extrapolate something from their own desires for better money as a means of getting better people:  There's a marketplace out there, and the basis of it is competition.  This isn't just hackneyed private sector talk.  These principles apply across the board.  It's all about the future and our collective willingness to acknowledge it and to confront it.  Take your pay raise, reps.  You're worth this kind of money.  Now think about South Dakota's teachers and consider why we can't value them on the same terms.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I See They Had The Bull-Throwing Competition At The Rapid City Stock Show Yesterday. Congresswoman Noem Was There Taking Credit For Passing The Farm Bill.

     Haven't seen the trophy, but it must be a hum-dinger.  Honestly, after a two-year long delay in the passage of this Bill, I suppose every elected rep who got the thing through probably deserves a little credit.  Unmentioned, though, is that the overlong delay was basically the result of a Republican faction in the United States House of Representatives that worked hard at stripping away the Food Stamp (known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) component of the Farm Bill and considering it as a separate item. Noem was part of that faction, which was willing stall the passage of the Bill even though the political untenability of their position was obvious from the start, given that it had no chance of clearing the Senate, much less getting signed into law by President Obama.  Noem's reasons for supporting the stalling tactic?  The SNAP program's growth has been accelerating at a fast pace, apparently too fast for Noem's tastes. 
     To me this has always been a bogus proposition.  For one thing, the number of eligible households has increased dramatically since the economy went sour six years ago, and as most people who follow such things know, the job market is still extremely soft, considering the large number of chronically un- and under-employed in the country these days.  A good analysis of the situation can be found in  this 2013 report from the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy and Priorities, which finds that the growth of SNAP closely tracks the growth in the number of poor and near-poor who are eligible for assistance.  The report also concludes that about 98% of the program's expenditures go to eligible recipients, leaving an error rate that includes fraud and overpayments of a bit less than 2%.  I really don't know how that stacks up with other federal programs aimed at giving assistance to the needy, but it certainly isn't high enough to set off the kinds of alarm bells that were sounded by so many Republicans during their drawn out fight to slash the SNAP program by considering it separately from the Farm Bill.
     Now that those Republicans, Noem included, have thrown in the towel on this born loser of a stalling tactic, they seem to be "shining it on" among their constituents and claiming credit for the Farm Bill's passage.  I believe this rates more than a bull-thrower's trophy.  I believe this rates a spot in the Bull-Thrower's Hall of Fame.  Maybe a separate monument to political chutzpah could be erected somewhere in the Washington, D.C., area to commemorate this brazen act of political flim-flammery.  I noticed in her last press release that Noem says the Farm Bill is far from perfect, no doubt kissing up a bit to her right wing colleagues who went down to defeat with her on it.  My question would be to get the Congresswoman to explain what a "perfect" Farm Bill would look like.  I suspect that taking billions of dollars of food assistance away from needy Americans would be a part of that ultra-conservative's fantasy  landscape. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Didja Hear About The Gay Teenager? He Was Worried He Might Be A Christian.

     The poor kid must really be torqued.  Imagine having and acting on strong attractions for another guy and trying to love Jesus at the same time.  As the early American moralists Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards--and any number of their contemporaries preaching from Christian pulpits might put it:  Blasphemy!  If those unyielding sermonizers need support from the Holy Bible, they can call on numerous passages from both Testaments to justify their rejection of homosexuals as sinners and refuse to confer their church's sacraments on them.  I really have no quarrel with the rights of churches that take that road. To each his own, live and let live, you do your thing and I'll do mine, cultivate your own garden, yada yada yada.
     What I do wonder about when it comes to those church communities (including my own, the United Methodists, who won't perform same sex marriages) is their tendency to function as cafeteria Christians.  I mean it's pretty clear that as a divorced and remarried guy  (read Mark 10: 2-12 here) that I'm unequivocally condemned as an adulterer according to the Man himself, Jesus Christ, who lambasted men like me when he went through that infamous quizzing from the Pharisees. Yet I'm (I think) an openly accepted member of my Methodist church, was even married the second time inside of one.    I have no doubt that the same situation exists in numerous denominations professing their Christianity, all of them inside the same cafeteria of moral imperatives, effectively saying, "I'll accept that sinner, but won't have anything to do with that guy, if you please." 
     From experience I know that the common response to matters of inconsistencies like these is that the Holy Bible is subject to linguistic analysis and historical interpretation.  That's okay with me as long as the analyses and interpretations aren't bent to serve contemporary mores and specific applications of scripture to fit a particular church family's predilections.  I read several versions of Jesus' condemnation of divorced men, and they're pretty much consistent and unequivocal.  Some utterances just don't lend themselves to connotative distinctions, and this is one of them.  A divorced guy is a divorced guy;  adultery is adultery.  So how come my sin is one that just about every Christian denomination I know of can deal with, but homosexuality both in thought and action, isn't?  Divorce is divorce, adultery is adultery, homosexuality is homosexuality, sin is sin.  The equivalence is self-evident, the scriptural condemnation is consistent, the uneven responses of some churches . . . mystifying.
     What it comes down to is this:  the whole issue isn't about homosexuals, it's about the challenge to Christian heterosexuals.  Contempt is not a license for self-righteousness.  And singling out sins for specific rejection of the church's sacraments?  That's a decision that is best left to the Guy Upstairs.  Times change, sins don't--all of us carry some baggage around, but that doesn't exclude us from receiving the blessings of the church or the love of its founder Jesus Christ.  Those who embrace that imperative but believe they are the exclusive caretakers of the body of Christ should consider the sin of pride and its effect on the calm of eternity. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Corinna, Corinna, Where You Been So Long? I Ain't Had No Representin' Since You Been Gone.

     Bracing news on the political front today:  Corinna Robinson, running for the Democratic nomination for SD's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, has struck up a working relationship with South Dakota resident/Harvard University lecturer/political mastermind extraordinaire Steve Jarding.  Jarding takes over as Robinson's main campaign consultant.  I don't know if there's a title attached to the function, but that Jarding is  likely to be involved in shaping and directing the campaign takes the Robinson venture to a major league level.  Jarding's well-chronicled involvement with the underdog Jim Webb's U.S. Senate campaign in Virginia that ended in a victory over the hapless incumbent George Allen a few years back has turned into a template of sorts for Democrats seeking office in Republican-dominated states.  I have no doubt that today's announcement will draw plenty of attention from national Democratic circles and financial sources.
     Regular readers of this blog have long known of my disappointment, disdain for, and ultimate disgust with Republican incumbent Kristi Noem, who I believe has long since abandoned her  desire to represent her South Dakota constituents in favor of conforming with the essentially irresponsible ideologues of the Republican Party's extreme right wing.  You might remember how Noem last November blatantly voted to shut down the United States Government without for a moment considering the impact on the Black Hills tourist industry, which was KO'd by the closures of Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave, and Devil's Tower.  Then, as if to really rub in the fact that she didn't give a hoot about the impact of her vote on the local and national economies, Noem blithely voted against raising the U.S. debt ceiling, which, if successful, would have forced the first default on bond payments in the history of the United States, indelibly smearing our country's credit rating.
     Noem's consistent intransigience with respect to emasculating the food stamp program during the current negotiations on the new Farm Bill must also grate on the nerves of many food producers in this state.  Given that for every dollar spent on Food Stamps, $1.70 of economic activity is generated, the agricultural production industry is the single biggest beneficiary  of this program, which subsidizes consumption, not production, meaning that government spending is distributed among a wide range of citizens, not just the few economic plutocrats who've been benefitting from government programs at the expense of ordinary citizens.  Noem's repeated alliance with other Republicans who've wanted to strip the food stamp program away from the Farm Bill may make sense to many, but its political untenability has been obvious from the start of the negotiations on it a couple of years ago.  That's the reason that the Farm Bill has been long-delayed.  Republicans finally gave in on this loser of an issue and now it looks like the Farm Bill has a chance at passing, no thanks to Noem and her stubbornly unrealistic colleagues.
     As to Corinna Robinson, her appearance has been sudden. She might yet turn out to be a flash in the pan. While Steve Jarding's involvement will give her campaign some polish and pull in a few out-of-state bucks, its substance has yet to be determined.  As I told Ms. Robinson during a brief meeting a few days ago, I'm looking for reasons to support her.  Though a Republican by registration and nature, I abhor the obstructionistic elements in my party, the ones that Noem has so clearly been representing, the ones that I believe could bring the GOP to ruin if allowed to take it over.   I'm ready for a suitable replacement. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

“Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

     That's Matthew 19:14, quoting Jesus.  Came to mind as I read of an outspoken 17-year old named Josie Wieland who challenged South Dakota State Senator Phil Jensen and State Representative Mike Verchio yesterday on their support for the state's Senate Bill 128, which is under consideration by the state legislature.  If passed, the Bill would prevent lawsuits against any business that refuses to serve same-sex married couples.  Jensen and Verchio  were in Rapid City at a "cracker-barrel" meeting open to constituents when Wieland questioned the justification for this proposal.  Jensen replied that it's an "anti-bullying free spech bill," adding that "it is just kind of a pro-active bill that will protect businesses and individuals from the bullying of the anti-straight folks."  Verchio, in his commentary, said  "because I am a very proud Christian conservative and follow the teaching of my lord and savior Jesus Christ does not make me a bigot and I object to people who think I am a bigot."
     With respect to Jensen's assertion, as a businessman myself I'm very sensitive to my right to refuse service to anyone.  But singling out people because of their beliefs?  That's a stretch.  Seems to me that if SB 128 becomes law, I could hang up a sign that says I refuse to provide services to  heterosexual couples because my personal belief system finds them abhorrent.  As you can imagine, it wouldn't take long to come up with other examples that reduce this whole notion to absurdity.  Eventually we could have a state full of shopkeepers refusing to do business with this group or that group based on belief systems that don't conform with those of the shopkeepers.  I mean this is like, "can, meet worms."  I don't question the sincerity of Jensen's  feelings on this, but I do question the short-sightedness of his judgement.
     As to Verchio and his defensive reaction to being considered a bigot, I wonder if he knows what the definition of "bigot" is.  I checked at least a half-dozen dictionaries, on-line and in my library, and came up with one word that I believe was in every definition:  "intolerant."  Now if Verchio doesn't consider himself intolerant, I wonder why he would support a measure that codifies the right of those to exercise their intolerance by refusing to do business with those they can't tolerate.  This seems to me the essence of bigotry, and considering Verchio's basis for his beliefs is the Holy Bible, I'm wondering where in the Bible it says that Christians should be intolerant of others.  I've read enough scripture, both in my lifetime of church attendance and as history and literature in college, to reasonably conclude that tolerance and understanding are the essence of the Christian spirit.  Furthermore, accepting the distinctions between secular and spiritual life is a practical aspect of Christianity that Jesus dealt with and addressed in Matthew 22 and Mark 12.  To me the message is that a  Christian's moral imperatives do not casually lend themselves to being exercised and enforced in the broader, secular community. 
     What it comes down to is that SB 128, simple as it seems on the surface, has some potential complications that make its effects too ambiguous to consider as a law.  Its already divisive nature has our legislative conversation dwelling on matters of personal belief, not on those of concrete needs, like education, infrastructure, economic development and health care.  It's time to set aside these battles of personal values and get to the business of running this government.