Monday, March 31, 2014

Now You See Him, Now You Don't. The Peek-A-Boo Campaign Of Mike Rounds.

      I only wish I could link to the stunningly vapid video that the Mike Rounds for Senate campaign released a couple of days ago--so bad that he and his staff pulled it from Youtube within a day or two of its posting.  First off it was filled with stock footage of folks that Rounds intimated were happy and healthy South Dakotans, but it was actually as cheesy a gallery of posed photos as you'll ever want to see. It even got Roll Call's attention, which did a picture-by-picture disclosure of the photos' origins from Shutterstock and Getty.  You'd think a campaign sporting millions of dollars in its war chest could send a South Dakota-based photog to visit  and take pics of South Dakota residents doing South Dakota jobs and enjoying South Dakota recreational opportunities for further transmission through South Dakota-designed and produced videos intended to sway South Dakota voters.  But no, Mike Rounds, whose persistent theme during his tenure as governor was South Dakota economic and workforce development decided to forsake his fellow South Dakota professionals and residents and use non-South Dakotans instead.  Way to help out with economic and workforce development in your home state, Governor.  Cory Heidelberger over at Madville Times called the ad "inauthentic," an adjective to which I would add "inept."
     Besides the ineptitude though, there's an attitude that comes with this pro-forma and dismissive approach to advertising.  It seems consistent with a cavalier I-can't-be-touched smugness that so far defines the Rounds campaign.  Thinking that the obvious plasticity of the video would sail right over the heads of South Dakotans reveals a condescending, if not altogether disdainful, perspective on the campaign's view of South Dakota's electorate.  That the ad was instantly trashed and exposed for what it is by a bunch of sharp-eyed commenters on Madville Times should remind Rounds and everybody else who's running for office in this state that you can't fool all the people all the time.
     After chiding Rounds for months about not coming out, I now understand why the former governor is playing peek-a-boo with the voters.   Public appearances run the risk of sudden exposure, as the misfired video demonstrates.  If Rounds can't come across as authentic, forceful, imaginative and genuinely caring about South Dakotans in a tightly controlled puff video in which all the elements are orchestrated to present him at his best, I doubt that he'll come across well in the real-life setting of a campaign, where he'll have to answer tough questions from the media and his opponents--and do so standing on his feet in front of the public.  I think he's chicken and that he has good reason to be.
     As a Republican, I've been extremely disappointed by Rounds' reluctance to speak out on the big issues facing the U.S. Senate these days.  There are also South Dakota-specific matters of importance that could stand his commentary, given his status as the former governor. Medicaid expansion is one.  His role as overseer during the EB-5/Northern Beef Packers fiasco is another.  And as to his term as governor, Rounds could explain the growth of state government during his tenure, along with the $127 million deficit that greeted his successor.  Presumably Rounds would join the Republican effort in D.C. to control government growth and reduce deficits.  So what happened in Pierre?
     I'm sure Rounds' campaign handlers will fend off these calls to come out of hiding with their standard disclaimer that there will be plenty of time to discuss these matters later.  That approach has good reason to it:  why risk a big lead in money and stature by actually exposing the real man to public scrutiny?  Answer:  With Mike Rounds that's too much of a risk.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Antiquities Act Of 1906 Has Been A Bonanza For South Dakota. Congresswoman Noem's Attitude: So, What?

     Enacted in 1906 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the Antiquities Act gives U.S. Presidents the power to designate certain public lands around the country as "National Monuments."  Every President since T.R. has used the power to do so, creating in the process some of our country's most iconic, most cherished, and most economically valued sites, totaling around 70 million acres.  Some National Monuments retain the designation (e.g., Devil's Tower in nearby Wyoming), others become National Parks (South Dakota's Badlands N.P., for example).  If there's any doubt about the economic value of these national treasures to South Dakota, consider that tourism is the states's second largest industry.  Their value on any esthetic scale I can think of is immeasurable.  T.R.'s understanding of that is why he's enshrined on Mt. Rushmore.
     That Noem is either unaware or unconcerned about the economic force that South Dakota's national parks have been is obvious. She made that plain by voting to shut them down last October during the peak Autumn tourist season. That she still hasn't grasped the connection between parks and their economic value was made quite evident in her vote a few days ago for a bill titled "Ensuring Public Involvement In The Creation Of National Monuments Act," which passed the House on pretty much party line voting.  Basically the act limits the president to creating one national monument per state during each four year term and requires environmental reviews for each proposed monument over 5,000 acres in size.  Why Republicans are in such a rush to deny the president what has always been a swift means of protecting public lands isn't clear to me. It might be part of a general effort at restricting presidential powers by reducing the number of new National Monuments.  Fewer National Monuments means fewer National Parks, because only Congress can turn a Monument into a National Park. I believe the effect of this law, if it makes the unlikely passage through the Senate and the White House, would be to vastly reduce the amount of land that is set aside for conservation and public enjoyment.
     Thankfully for those of us who make a living from and enjoy the wonders of South Dakota's national parks, nothing like this law was in place when Mt. Rushmore was created or the Badlands were turned into one of the great, protected geological wonders on the planet.  Could you imagine an environmental review process being imposed on Mt. Rushmore?  Might just as well assume it would never have come into being.  Given that the state she represents is virtually identified by Mt. Rushmore, why Congresswoman Noem would put barriers against future generations enjoying yet-to-be-designated monuments and parks  is mystifying. Certainly, given the inherent political headwinds, exclusively Congressional action in this area would bring the process to a crawl. This is one area where politically unfettered decisions by the president, regardless of party, should be left alone.
     In any event, Congress has the authority to abolish any National Monuments or convert them into other designations.  The Congressional Research Service makes mention of this in a 2005 report titled National Monument Issues.  Given that congressional authority to rescind or amend National Monument designations is already in the books, why would Noem and her fellow Republicans make the process more difficult in the first place?  If they have the votes to pass this bill, they probably have the votes to reverse any National Monument designation they don't like.  The answer can only be that they're playing  politics with public land.
     As an addendum:  what's with Congresswoman Noem suddenly warming to the idea of environmental reviews, anyway?  I note that Noem a few weeks ago voted for a bill that would restrict those reviews when it comes to private development.  Apparently what's good for the public sector goose isn't so good for the private sector gander.  Explain yourself, Congresswoman.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Medicaid, Shmedicaid. I'm Looking At The Bucks Involved--And We're Nuts Not To Take This Expansion Deal From The Feds.

     The numbers speak for themselves.  In this case they shout for themselves.  Between now and 2020, if South Dakota accepts the Medicaid expansion offer that comes as part of the Affordable Care Act, we'll take in $2.1 billion (with a "b")  and shell out $157 million (with an "m").  Health care economics are too complicated to call on here, but a good deal is a good deal, doesn't matter what sector of the economy we're looking at.  The South Dakota Budget and Policy Project out of Sioux Falls has done some comprehensive work on this and it looks to me like the numbers are sound and just too compelling to ignore.  What's frustrating is that Governor Daugaard and a pretty solid phalanx of Republicans in our legislature don't actually ignore them--they trash them with a double dose of political rhetoric.  Some naysaying is aimed at federal budget policies, using our legislature as a platform for making gratuitous political statements about national issues when they should be focused on what's best for South Dakota.   Others, including Governor Daugaard, insist on getting special treatment for South Dakota if expansion were accepted--a shrewd political ploy in that it gives Daugaard and his allies a patina of reasonableness even though it's a foregone conclusion that expansion can't be crafted into state-specific formats, probably by law and certainly by the practical reality involved.  Like it or not, Medicaid is a federal program that has to be administered by a central authority with  uniform guidelines.
     Unless and until somebody comes up with a scheme for the feds to "block grant" Medicaid money (not a bad idea to my way of thinking), we're pretty much stuck with the program that's now in place.   From my Republican perspective this leaves much to be desired in the way of ideological purity, but from my businessman's point of view, it's how the world is.  I'm much more the pragmatist than the ideologue when it comes to matters of public money.  And on that basis I think turning down the Medicaid expansion deal is just plain bad business.  The bottom line, going back to the SD Budget and Policy Project's study, is that we're walking away from 2 billion smackers because Daugaard and his allies are worried about what might occur after 2020, when SD's contribution stabilizes at about 10% of the program's cost.  I think the Governor is overly squeamish about this and isn't considering how much value to SD is rendered during the 6 year stretch ahead of us.  If the Governor believes that funding from the feds will shrink dramatically, he should make a case for refusing any of the $2 billion in federal money that South Dakota gets every year.  After all, what guarantees are in place to ensure that funding for those programs will exist after 2020?  I think we have to be reasonable people and make measured decisions on realistic expectations.                       And when it comes to expectations, the payoff to healthcare providers between now and 2020 looks to be nearly $1 billion.  That will more than compensate them for the nearly $100 million a year they don't collect from people who can't pay their bills.  That lost money is naturally recovered from people and insurance companies by way of higher costs.  I think it's reasonable to expect some relief on that front if the Medicaid expansion results--and it's probably more than reasonable to assume that the flood of federal money will have a bracing effect on South Dakota's economy, across the board.  From my Republican businessman's perspective I have no problem with that eventuality, whatsoever.
     Given that the Daugaard administration has an acute fixation on economic development, it seems odd--strange, maybe--that the governor isn't enthusiastically endorsing this opportunity.  We're talking about a $2 billion windfall, which I have no doubt will rollover a few times and create much more than that over the next several years.  I really think our elected leadership is doing a disservice to South Dakota by turning down this kind of money.
   

Monday, March 24, 2014

25% Of South Dakota's Vo-Tech Grads Leave The State. I Wonder Why. The Latest Dakota Poll Gives A Clue.

     "The issue of workforce continues to be a major challenge for our state."  So said Governor Daugaard in his State of the State speech last January.  He went on to note that "it's difficult for employers to add more jobs even if they have the business to justify it."  Daugaard promised to create "workforce summits" throughout the state, bringing business and community leaders together to discuss the situation. This doesn't sound like the most concrete initiative imaginable--talk is easy and talk is cheap.  Nonetheless, If action follows chatter I'll be the first to note and applaud.  So far, in the realm of action, Daugaard's failed and costly (to the tune of $1 million) New South Dakotans initiative, designed to entice skilled and well-educated workers to South Dakota has been the most visible effort put out by the Daugaard adminsitration. He has also carried on the Dakota Roots program that claims to have brought 3,000 former South Dakotans back to their home state since 2006, which amounts to fewer than 400 a year. Daugaard considers this a "great success."  Ohhh-kay.  I guess "success" is in the eye of the beholder.
     In this beholder's eye, though, I have my misgivings.  For one thing, today's data from the South Dakota Technical Institute's Placement Report For 2013 Graduates notes that nearly 500 of those graduates who found jobs weren't placed in South Dakota.  That's about 100 more than came in through the Dakota Roots program, based on DR's 8-year average.  To my way of thinking that's a net loss.  For another, the wage differentials between South Dakota and its neighboring states must make it nearly impossible to convince those seeking financial and professional opportunity to either return to South Dakota or migrate here in the first place.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that SD's mean wages are significantly lower than those of our neighboring states.  Of some interest, scanning the Placement Report will show that the biggest out-migration of Vo-Tech grads is concentrated at Southeast Tech in Sioux Falls, which is a short hop from Iowa and Minnesota, where both median and mean wages outpace South Dakota's by thousands of dollars a year.
     Some will try to explain this disparity away as a cost-of-living differential reflected in wages, to which I say, no way.  The Council for Community and Economic Research, whose ACCRA data is used by the U.S. Census Bureau, says that South Dakota ranks 31st in the country when it comes to cost-of-living. We're in the middle of the pack, cost wise, but at the back of the pack, wage wise. Those who would complain about the credibility of ACCRA have a formidable task and need to bring some peer-reviewed contra-data to the discussion if they want to mount a challenge to it.  The fact is, we pay lousy wages in South Dakota and that's why we have a difficult time filling jobs.
     More concerning to me is the way I've seen so many outstanding young people take off as soon as they finish high school or college.  Anecdotal as it may be, I think there's some confirmation about it being a common aspect of growing up South Dakotan.  Certainly the fact that a quarter of last year's Vo-Tech grads left the state is a telling example.  A Dakota Poll that came out yesterday gives some confirmation about young people and their attitudes toward remaining in South Dakota.  Dakota Poll board member Sam Hurst said in a KOTA television interview that the economy could force those with higher education to leave the state.  Hurst notes that "having economic security, that's their greatest fear. That they can't get that in South Dakota."
     We'll see if Governor Daugaard's "workforce summits" will address this situation head on.  Leading up to the election they could be more show than tell, but at some point the low wage issue has to be addressed. It's either that or continue to complain about what should be labelled a wage--not a labor--shortage.
      


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Time For Rick Weiland To Break Out The Moxie Pills.

      My good friend Rick Weiland is fighting what he probably believes is a spirited "prairie populist" campaign in his bid to capture the open U.S. Senate seat in South Dakota this year.  His themes about taking the country back from the rich and powerful interests who control the U.S. government have a certain resonance to them, considering how well-known the big moneyed interests are.  No question there's some merit to this approach.  But will it win in South Dakota in 2014?  I doubt it.
     A thematic campaign has its limits.  In a teensy-weensy state like South Dakota (where the entire population numbers less than half that of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley), people will respond to big themes to a certain extent, but for folks out here on the northern Plains, it's really more about the individual. Weiland misses that point when he pictures his heavily favored opponent, former Republican Governor Mike Rounds, as a tool for those powerful national and international interests who have an expensively maintained desire to keep Republicans in power in Washington, D.C.  That perception is certainly worth running against, but it won't win the election in a state where Republican registrations outnumber Democratic ones by nearly a 4 to 3 margin.
     Weiland really needs to make Rounds himself the issue.  This came to mind today when I read a piece on one of Rounds' fringe primary opponents, a badly underfinanced gadfly-esque state rep name Stace Nelson, whose lack of money is somewhat offset by his blustery nature and provocative pronouncements in terms of getting him media space.  Rick Weiland could use a bit of education from Nelson when it comes to learning how to characterize the opposition in this little state where personal contact and impressions are paramount.  A useful contrast is their respective approaches to the EB-5/Northern Beef Processing plant, the fiasco that for the most part occurred during Rounds' administration as Governor.  Here's what Nelson had to say about it in this morning's Rapid City Journal.  One choice tidbit?  "We are witnessing corruption in South Dakota that is akin to Third World country corruption. We had politicians that happily sold out the state of South Dakota to get access to communist Chinese money. The Rounds people knew about this, they didn't tell people it was ongoing."  Nothing wishy-washy or equivocal about how Nelson sees the fiasco and Mike Rounds' connection to it.
     But as to Rick Weiland's approach to the issue?  Here's Rick's grasp at some of the lowest hanging political fruit I've ever seen.  In an interview with the RCJ a couple of weeks ago, Weiland was tossed the same EB-5 softball that Nelson pounded out of the park. Rick's response: "It's very serious.  It's being investigated and I think we need to let the investigations run their course."
     "It's very serious."  It's very serious.  Seriously?  It's very serious?  Can your followers give you a great big "duh" on that one, Rick?  Of course it's serious.  That's why it's being investigated.  But there's more to it, as Nelson understands, than just the matters under investigation and they're fair game to bring into the political discussion. Rounds himself is the issue and a vigorous discussion about his role and the management style that made this happen needs to be a part of the campaign. And this isn't just about the political value to Rick's endeavor, much as I think his campaign will stand to gain a lot from it. This is also about getting former Governor Rounds to explain just exactly how all this could have occurred on his watch.  
     
     
     
     

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What's With All The Sales Tax Exemptions In South Dakota? These Need To Be Examined.

     Are sales tax exemptions ever analyzed, item by item, in South Dakota?  If not, they should be, because we've got 'em up up to our collective eyebrows in this state.  I was reviewing a list of exemptions put out last year by the South Dakota Department of Revenue and couldn't believe how much potential revenue to the state is given up by this 15 page list of goods and services that are exempted from collecting the state's 4% sales tax.  The amount, $582 million a year, is actually pretty staggering in its own right, but when you consider that total revenues raised by the state last year were about $2.4 billion (another $1.6 billion comes from D.C.), that figure represents a enormous chunk of potential income.  Cory Heidelberger over at Madville Times notes that just 17% of it would create the $100 million it would take to bring South Dakota teacher salaries up to competitive snuff with those of our surrounding states.  Just scan that list and see if there isn't a lot of potential to do just that. 
     The best comment in the entire document I linked comes from the DOR  itself.  It notes that "on a case by case basis, the estimates [of potential revenue] provide a valuable benchmark for discussion of whether policy justifications warrant the loss of revenue."   Sounds to me like the tax collectors  themselves see some room for lifting some of these exemptions.  This is a list that must be reviewed--you'll see why when you get a load of some of the exemptions, too numerous to list here--and put under some scope of analysis by our elected officials, whose constant refrain when it comes  to many budget requests is that there's not enough money to fund them.
     Fair enough, but I think we could scare up some more revenues in this state by collecting sales taxes on goods and services whose exemptions may have made sense at one time, but are really outdated and unnecessary now.  For example, South Dakota's ag sector accounts for about $220 million of exempted sales taxes, no doubt a tradition held over from the days when ma and pa farming and ranching was the norm and people in an industry with so much weather and price volatility needed some help from the state to get through the lean years.  Those days are long since gone, as risk management techniques via crop insurance, subsidies and marketing strategies have led to an industry sector in South Dakota that is doing very well, collectively, and can afford to cough up 4% sales taxes on goods and services related to ag production.
     Fact is, I believe the ag sector of this state is the envy of the business community at large, considering that just about every other business I can think of has to pay sales taxes on the most, if not all, the goods and services required for their operations.  I know I do with mine, which I certainly don't begrudge, but do so wondering about the fairness of the overall schemata.  There's no doubt that many of the exemptions listed by DOR have a reasonable basis, but everything considered, I go along with the State's tax collectors and think it's time to re-evaluate whether the "policy justifications warrant the loss of revenue" from some of these exemptions.  Now that the legislative session is over, Governor Daugaard should consider creating a commission to do just that.  We've got almost a year to go over this stuff before our elected officials come back into session.  A good explanation as to the justification for every one of these exemptions needs to be forthcoming. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Memo To The SD Democratic Party: Are You Crazy?

     I wish the South Dakota Democratic Party hadn't made such a big splash over Susan Wismer's announcement that she would seek the party's nomination for Governor.  I mean last January's rollout is so loaded with inner circle fanfare that it comes off like a virtual endorsement. Dem Party Chair Deb Knecht's gushingly enthusiastic prose style reads more like a beatification than the announcement it's supposed to be.  And just to allay any doubts about where Knecht's support is directed, her concluding  pro forma mention of Joe Lowe as the other candidate for the nomination is terse, short, and obligatory in tone.  Along with the fact that SD Dems didn't give Joe Lowe any such treatment when he announced his candidacy last Fall, this so-called announcement makes a travesty of the notion that political parties, before primaries, should be neutral when it comes to showing preferences.
     I've never met Wismer, I've met Lowe once.  I understand the former to be competent, thorough, and familiar enough with the workings of SD state government after serving in the state's legislature for three terms.  I also understand that a bundle of charisma she is not, though I'm depending on hearsay for that one.  If it's true, and I'm confident that it is, I think SD Dems are making a big mistake if they overlook Joe Lowe.  Wismer's background has given her lots of east river connections with what little "establishment" that the Democratic Party has in South Dakota, but that's not much of a reason to brush off Lowe.
     It will take a lot more than being an establishment candidate for a Dem to knock off incumbent Dennis Daugaard in the Fall.  If I were a Dem I'd be concerned that Wismer just doesn't have the muscular persona (think Hillary, think Elizabeth Warren, think Debbie Stabenow, you get the picture) that it will take to convince voters that fundamental changes have to occur in South Dakota's political landscape. 
I think the successful candidate can define Daugaard as the caretaker of the past, using the same old initiatives to achieve the same old status quo for South Dakota.  To accomplish that, a protean political effort is the task at hand, and I doubt that Susan Wismer--fine a person as I'm sure she is--will be up to it.
     But will Joe Lowe?  I haven't got a clue, honestly, but if  political past is political prologue, I'd say he has a much better shot at it than Wismer.  Re-locating to South Dakota back in the 1990s, Lowe honed his political skills in Southern California, taking over in the early '90s as Mayor of Mission Viejo in Orange County, where the politics are vicious and no prisoners are taken--I lived there myself until I was in my thirties and can still remember it as the land of dirty political tricks  ("Tricky Dick" Nixon was a product of that tradition--you get the idea).  If Lowe has retained the toughness that it took to be a winner a couple of decades ago, he'll match up just fine with Daugaard on any stage.  Does all this mean I'm supporting Lowe for Governor?  No way.  I'm not supporting anybody right now.  What I am supporting is a vigorous gubernatorial contest that will be a fight over the future of South Dakota--and I'm pretty sure that Joe Lowe is the Dem that can best come out punching.  Despite their party leadership's none-too-subtle favoritism toward Susan Wismer, South Dakota Dems really should be giving Joe Lowe a hard look before they make their decisions at the primary. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I do, I do . . . T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do

     South Dakota touts itself as "The Land Of Infinite Variety" but I don't get the "infinite" part:  there's certainly no room for variation when it comes to laws regulating marriage.  In this state it's all about one man, one woman--and that's it.  While the rest of the country is advancing steadily toward the notion that marriage is between two people in love, South Dakota stodgily maintains an official insistence that it's all about a male and a female, even though the vow "I do" is gender neutral.  This is a frustration that finally proved too much for Nancy Robrahn and Jennie Rosenkranz of Rapid City last week.  The two ladies, in love and co-habiting for several decades, decided a couple of day ago to formalize their relationship by giving it official sanction as a marriage.  Boy did they bark up the wrong bureaucratic tree.  Officials at their county office refused to accept their application for a marriage license
     Undeterred, Nancy and Jennie promised to find a state where same-sex marriage is legal and return to the "Land Of Limited Variety," then demand official recognition of their marriage.  Go get 'em, gals.  My attitude, true blue professed libertarian that I am, is that relationships are self-defining and "t'aint nobody's business" as to how Nancy and Jennie and countless other couples in this state and country care to represent themselves--married, going steady, shacking up, or otherwise.  This is still a free country and the people involved are probably as law-abiding and tax-paying as the rest of us.  They have their rights to the privacy of their relationships and the benefits that accrue to all married folks, same as everybody else. 
     No doubt a sizable body of South Dakotans disagree, but those folks are in the minority nationally.  Last week's ABC News/Washington Post poll on the subject determined that by a margin of 59-34, Americans support same-sex marriage.  50% of those polled even think it is a Constitutional right.  I think it's dawning on our society that people of the same gender calling themselves married doesn't bring on some sort of social, political or economic apocalypse.  Those whose religious views find it abhorrent are free to express their rejection of the notion by keeping same-sex marriages out of their places of worship--a right that I believe is indeed Constitutional and one that I would defend to my last breath.  But rejecting it as a feature of everyday social interaction in the secular world of day-to-day society?  What's to be so worried about?
     As far as I know, same-sex married couples go through daily life in about the same ways as everyone else.  As to the legal matters attached to marriage rights and responsibilities, how would they differ on the basis of the genders of partners involved?  And when it comes to adoption, I'm confident about the outcome of a same-sex couple adopting a child out of a desire to raise a young one in a loving home that really wants that child.  Considering the rotten home lives of way too many children in our country, I'm convinced that a caring home headed by a same-sex couple would be something we should tolerate, accept and encourage..   
     Seventeen states already recognize same-sex marriage, and courts are striking down laws that ban them on what seems like a regular basis.  Ultimately we'll be tested here in South Dakota if Jennie and Nancy follow through on their plans.  I suppose a court challenge is probably the only way this will get some final resolution here, but it would sure be nice if a sudden dawning of enlightenment could descend on our elected officials, getting the law changed through the legislative process.  A vote of confidence from our representatives instead of a court order would make for a nice recognition by South Dakota of a free society's essential value, that "equal rights" means "equal rights."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

So What's South Dakota's Tourism Industry? Chopped Liver?

      Are the people that run South Dakota's Governor's Office Of Economic Development somewhat uninformed--if not clueless--about developing export markets?  I see yesterday through an announcement from GOED that Governor Daugaard
has selected representatives from eleven South Dakota firms to join him on a trade mission to China, pitching any number of products made in our state for possible direct sales to the People's Republic.  All in all, I can support junkets like this, being a biz type myself who understands the value of promotion and face-to-face encounters with potential customers.  Fact is, you gotta spend money to make money, and if any of these enterprises score some business in China, it'll only add good things to the state's economy.  Scanning the list of attendees on this junket, I think they make a fair representation of South Dakota's ag and manufacturing sectors and I wish all of them well.
     But . . . Nowhere on the list do I see one single representative of South Dakota's second largest industry, tourism, which has the potential of being one of our state's top export markets.. Tourism, by definition, is an export, as it bring foreign currency into our country.  This is what makes me wonder if officials at GOED are clueless.  The Chinese tourist market is immenseA 2012 piece in China Business Review gives a hint of its growing size, noting that by 2020, in North America, travelers from China will rank third in number, after travelers from the United Kingdom and Japan.  The piece also notes that by the 2020s, China's outbound travel market will likely expand to triple the size of Japan’s.  
    This is an appalling oversight, and I think Governor Daugaard owes those of us in the tourism sector of South Dakota's economy an explanation as to why our crucially important component of the state's business community was overlooked when putting this junket together.  Pitching our state to foreign visitors isn't that tough, considering the proven collection of assets that we have here--history, natural beauty, world-class monuments.  Heck, from what I understand, Chinese folks tend to be aggressive gamblers, which would make them a natural target for marketers pushing Deadwood and the state's reservation casinos.  I have no doubt that there are numerous tour operators throughout China who have plenty of experience booking tours to the United States.  A face-to-face visit with them by a knowledgeable promoter of South Dakota tourist destinations would be invaluable.
     As an occasional traveler to Europe I've often encountered sizable groups of Chinese tourists at virtually all the famous destinations.  A few years back while on the Parthenon in Athens, Dawna and I even noted that the Chinese visitors outnumbered Caucasions by a wide margin.  As to the Louvre?  Last time we went, in '05, Chinese tourists were all over  that place.  For a state that seems willing to court Chinese investors into enterprises of dubious value via the EB-5 investment program, I'm quite surprised that the Daugaard administration hasn't figured out that mass marketing in China might produce results that spread money throughout the state, not just in concentrations limited to a relative handful of participants.  This is a bad call by Governor Daugaard, one that I believe he'll come to see as a missed opportunity. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dis-United Methodists? I Seriously Hope Not, But I Have My Doubts. Is A Temple Of Jesus Big Enough For Same Sex Marriage?

        Wow.  Looks like United Methodist pastor Reverend Thomas Ogletree of New York won't be facing a canonical trial after allOgletree recently officiated at the same-sex marriage of his son, apparently a violation of church rules that merited a Methodist Church trial.  The result could have led to his ouster from the ranks of the church's clergy.  An undertaking like this is not to be taken lightly, but then, Reverend Ogletree himself is no particular lightweight either.  Dr. Ogletree, 79, was dean of both the Yale Divinity School and Drew Theological Seminary. He's still a professor emeritus at Yale. From 1978-81 he was director of graduate studies in religion at Vanderbilt University. He's authored several widely-read and  -admired books, including The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics and Hospitality to the Stranger: Dimensions of Moral Understanding. He's also on the editorial board of The Journal of Religious Ethics.
       Challenging somebody with creds as eye-popping as those makes for a formidable public-relations task.  It comes as no surprise that New York UMC Bishop Martin D. McLee abandoned the ecclesiastical confrontationIf there's a surprise here, it's the unequivocal way that Bishop McLee rejected any further objections to conducting same-sex marriages in the churches over which he has authority. Said McLee, "I call for and commit to a cessation of church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies and instead offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation."  As a long-standing member of Rapid City's Canyon Lake United Methodist Church, I know that this issue has been percolating for some time.  Recently I had dinner with one of South Dakota's long-admired UMC pastors, now retired (sorry, no names, no genders) and asked if the church was likely to reverse course on this.  The Ogletree matter was just making the news.  "I hope so," said my friend, "if the church knows what's good for it." 
    I hope so, too, but think it will be a contentious process.  The blowback to Bishop McLee's decision in New York has been swift and immediate.  One of the complainants against Ogletree, New York Reverend Roy E. Jacobson, said today, "the settlement agreed to is not, in our minds, a just resolution of our complaint. It makes no acknowledgement of the breaking of our clergy covenant, the clear teaching of Scripture, and our agreed upon way of discipleship expressed in our Book of Discipline. There are no consequences for such violation. It fails to recognize the harm done to our church members, who are seeking to live faithfully by teachings of the church for the last 2,000 years. And it fails to prevent further breaking of our covenant by other clergy in our annual conference."  The red flags attached to this statement are the words "clear teaching of Scripture," which of course is as clear as the mud tracked in by the donkeys who bore Mary into that stable one fateful night in December.  If the teaching of Scripture were so "clear", we probably would have avoided two millenia of conflict among those for whom the "clarity" of the Holy Bible is  indisputably authoritative, versus the competing "clarity" of those who obtain their teachings through another facet of that wonderfully prismatic Book.
     One set of "clear teachings" challenging another set of "clear teachings" of Scripture has been the source of some of History's most egregious catastrophes.  Another schism, we don't need.  I certainly hope the Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist Church can avoid a contentious aftermath of the New York decision, which I embrace wholeheartedly.  I've written before of "cafeteria Christians," who seem to tolerate some sins (like that of adultery committed by divorced people who remarry, per the words of Jesus) but exclude sinners of other stripes from obtaining the sacraments of their churches.  This is hypocritical baloney and ignores Christianity's towering imperative, summed up by poet W.H. Auden:  "love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart."  I can't outdo Auden, but I can note that the word "love" is the verb that drives the rest of that sentiment. 
    

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Comedy Of Errors--But Who's Laughing?

     Great job, Bob Mercer, and most appreciated.   Mercer is the independent reporter/blogger based in Pierre whose twitter coverage of today's hearings in the state capitol on the Slaughterhouse EB-5 fiasco has been fast and clear.  I'm writing this during the hearing's midday break.  The session is being held by the South Dakota Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee, which wants to know how the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's EB-5 investment program, designed to induce foreigners to invest a minimum of $500 thousand in American enterprises in exchange for obtaining American visas, wound up creating a bankrupt beef packing plant in Aberdeen, SD, that lost $159 million.  Given the time, effort and outright grants that the State of South Dakota and the City of Aberdeen put into the project, it's still unclear to me how much South Dakotans lost to this endeavor, but it looks like it could amount to millions.  Eventually we'll find out.
     And just how will we find out?  Maybe the surprise announcement at today's hearings that 3 more federal authorities/agencies (HUD, the Treasury Department and the Energy Department) have joined in the investigation with the U.S. Attorney and the FBI will scare some solid financial information out of the story.  As of now the numbers have yet to be toted up, and this morning's segment of the hearings hasn't yielded much information, other than a vague comment by Pat Costello, who heads up the Governor's Office of Economic Development--the agency under whose auspices all of this occurred--that the state has received tax receipts from the project that could offset much of the money put into it.  The financial dust has yet to settle before reaching that conclusion, because a lot of indirect costs have yet to be accounted for.  There are easily overlooked costs in broad-ranging financial disasters like this one.  For examples, how much did the state pay in unemployment benefits to the laid off workers of the plant, how much of the Governor's economic development budget was used up by promoting the endeavor, and, on the private sector front,  how much did it cost South Dakota contractors who were stiffed by the bankruptcy and so on.
     The hearing itself has disclosed some operational and oversight blunders that were surprising in their magnitude.  The private entity, SDRC, Inc., that contracted with the state to handle EB-5 investment programs failed to submit monthly financial records as required by its contract.  Who on earth was responsible for letting that pass?  You can twitter @pierremercer to get a complete and timely report of the proceedings to learn more about these mishandled details.  The word "wrongdoing" shows up at the hearing several times--whether or not that's code for "potentially criminal" is a decision that's above my pay grade.
     Pat Costello, and apparently Governor Daugaard, are still relentlessly optimistic about the packing plant's prospects, which turned out to be another surprise at the hearing.  Costello believes that in two years, Northern Beef Packers at Aberdeen will be a functioning and profitable operation.  Having been in the cattle business myself, I know one of the necessary traits of operating in that business is unabashed optimism, but in this case I think it's misplaced.  The plant was designed to kill 1500 head of cattle every day in order to make money, but they were never able to secure more than about 200 a day during its few months of operation.  The explanation at the time was that the operation was short of cash, but I think it had more to do with a shortage of cattle.  If anything, cattle numbers now are shorter than they were a couple of years ago when the plant went bust.  I can't see the situation improving.  Nor can I see the outcome of these investigations into what happened turning up anything better than incompetence and poor management, from the Governor's office on down. The "wrongdoing" part may have to be taken up a bit later. 


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The State Of Washington Has Figured This One Out . . . Why Can't South Dakota?

     Here's a news flash--higher wages make for better-than-average job growth.  The numbers are in, and the state of Washington's decision to break with tradition on minimum wage increases in 1998 by immediately raising the minimum and then tying future increases to the cost-of-living has been a resounding success.  A recap by the analysts at Bloomberg was posted on the Yahoo Finance page today and pretty much confirms what I've always taken to be self-evident, that raising minimum wages to at least keep up with inflation makes for better overall economic conditions.  The minimum wage in Washington is now $9.32/hour, more than $2.00/hour better than South Dakota's $7.25. 
     This is actually kind of appalling.  Those that reflexively write this off as a reflection of cost-of-living differentials should know that on a scale developed by The Council for Community and Economic Research (whose data is used by the U.S. Census Bureau for its cost-of-living indexes) South Dakota's ranking as the 31st highest cost-of-living state is marginally exceeded by Washington's rank of 36.  We ain't that far apart, folks, yet look at the difference in our minimum wages.  As to the economic effect of Washington's approach to minimum wage increases, Bloomberg's analysts note that Washington's job growth numbers exceed the national average by a substantial margin, nearly twice the national rate.  Meantime, payrolls at bars and restaurants, thought to be especially sensitive to wage increases, grew by 21 percent.  As for poverty, Washington's level has been below the nation's for at least the past 7 years.
    Given that South Dakota seems to be in a perpetual state of labor shortages, you'd think the connection between a persistently low minimum wage and the fact that we can't seem to get enough people to work here would be obvious.  But no, it seems that every time the subject comes up we get the same tired arguments about how raising minimum wages would be detrimental to our labor force because it would price people out of jobs.  I think Washington state's numbers pretty much shred that argument.  Businesses have ways of absorbing rising labor costs--one of them being that a reduced turnover of labor created by higher wages only adds to a an enterprise's efficiency.   Meantime, getting substantially more money into general circulation by paying workers higher wages adds some financial octane to the consumer-fueled engine that drives our economy in the first place.
     There's a lot of discussion about this going on in Washington, D.C., where some incremental progress is taking place.  I think it would be nice if South Dakota could show some leadership on this issue and take some unilateral steps to raise our minimum wage right here.  For one thing, Washington state's numbers are there for the consideration.  For another, we might find that people are actually attracted to coming to a state that doesn't have the reputation as one of the lowest-paying places in the nation.  Governor Daugaard is committed to a top-down economic development schemata that continues to perpetuate chronic labor shortages.  For once I'd like to see our chief exec consider development through a bottom-up approach that would find a way to start paying workers some decent money.  People in Washington state have figured it out.  Why can't we?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Gunfight At The SD Corral

     Some gun-connected legislation is being tossed around in the legislature, and news reports say that tensions are high.  Apparently there's a brouhaha over a couple of bills, pitting the National Rifle Association's supporters against those who belong to a nationally-affiliated group called The South Dakota Gun Owners.  I guess before I go on I should say I'm pretty much a 2nd Amendment devotee, believing that the right of individuals to bear arms is an ingrained and historic element of American life.  I'm also okay with concealed carrying rights, with the usual caveat that rights come with responsibilities.  Personally I don't carry or even own a firearm.  I lost my taste for those weapons after toting a .45 automatic and an M-16 all over Quang Tri Province in Vietnam for 13 months when I was a Marine radioman with a grunt company.  I don't even like the smell of gunpowder at July 4 fireworks shows--just evokes too many memories and images of battlefields, blood and dead people.
     But one thing I do know, in principle at least, my service was all about preserving individual rights, especially those that are set in Constitutional stone.  I do find it a little weird, though, when gun owners try to push those rights  by extending them into laws that permit folks carrying concealed weapons   into specific locations, like schools and, in the case of a just-failed bill in Pierre, into the State Capitol Building itself.  The latter effort  fell by the wayside, but not before some tension erupted on the floor of the legislature.  Nowhere in any news reports did I get any information about why the bill's supporters felt it was necessary to allow people to bring concealed weapons into the Capitol--except when the legislature and the Supreme Court are in session and, quizzically to me,  when the Governor is giving a budget address.  That last caveat struck me as somewhat quirky.  Why would an occasion when the Governor is speaking on any topic except the budget be open season for weapons-packers to roam inside the building? What makes a budget address so special that it needs to be singled out as an occasion when guns are a no-no?  Given that the Capitol, like any public structure these days, is probably crawling with security, I imagine the need to carry a weapon into the building for self-protection is pretty minimal.  The me  this seems like more than a solution in search of a problem.  I think it's an over-assertion of gun rights and a failed demonstration of political clout among some gun ownership groups.  Even the NRA lobbied against it. 
     This isn't the only bill that has divided gun owners politically in Pierre.  Per an Associated Press piece published in today's Rapid City Journal, The NRA is supporting a bill that would keep firearms away "from those who are mentally ill and deemed a threat to themselves or others." The effort is in keeping with the NRA's effort to get legislation like this passed in all 50 states.  The South Dakota Gun Owners and their national organization oppose it, saying  that "this mental health legislation targets law-abiding gun owners to strip them of their right to self-defense without a crime ever being committed."   Huh?   Is the general population supposed to be okay with the notion that people who are "deemed a threat to themselves and others" have the same gun-bearing rights as all other gun owners?  I can't see it, but am certainly open to hearing from opponents of this bill if they'd care to explain why they oppose it.  To me the legislation sounds more like common sense than an erosion of gun ownership rights.  Those rights are certainly worth preserving and defending, but there's no need to go overboard with gratuitous political statements like this one as part of the process.  . 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Of Debt, Deficits And Doomsday Hysteria--And Why Noem And Thune Should Cool Their Jets Just A Bit

     An exchange between me and an anonymous commenter that's below my last post got me thinking (for once, some of my readers would add, lol).  My correspondent is justifiably concerned about the federal debt, its potential impact on interest rates and wants to know at what point the national debt becomes a concern to me.  Anonymous went on to defend Congresswoman Kristi Noem's vote to shut down the government last October.  I'm glad to share the commenter's opinion and my reaction, both of which are presented in full, below.  On reflection I did some thinking on his Q about the point at which I get concerned about the national debt.  As a reasonably successful businessman of many years standing I know one thing about debt, both public and private:  it should never be lightly regarded and has to be kept at the top of the mind at all times.
     That seems axiomatic to me, but there's a corollary:  Single-minded focus on debt can take too much time, attention and energy away from building the revenue-producing assets that service and reduce that debt.  Since World War II we've had several episodes when the national debt reached levels that seemed alarming at the time, but during each of those episodes the power of the American economy and its unstoppable trend toward growth reduced--if not the dollar amount of the debt--the size of it in relation to the nation's economy, rendering the debt/doomsday hysteria of those eras a passing memory, forgotten all too quickly.  That Congresswoman Noem chose to close down the government once and voted twice to deny the United States Treasury its ability to service the nation's financial obligations by rejecting a debt-ceiling increase only tells me that the lessons of history have been lost on Noem, if ever she knew about them in the first place.  More troubling to me is Senator Thune's recent vote against raising the debt ceiling, particularly since I've been a supporter of his from day one--having given a much younger and unknown John Thune who was running for a GOP nomination to Congress in 1996 his first public exposure in Pennington County.  I took him to be a level-headed pragmatist commited to doing what's best for South Dakota.  Apparently I was wrong:  level-headed pragmatists don't support the self-destructing  financial turmoil that results when they bare threats of disabling the government or shutting it down altogether.
     Without assessing their political motives, I can say that both Noem and Thune are guilty of legislative overkill.  The built-in resilience of the American economy should be nurtured by elected officials, not thwarted by them.   And just how resilient is the American economy?  Don't take my word for it.  Here's what the man himself, Warren Buffet, said yesterday to his shareholders in his annual letter to them:    "America's best days lie ahead . . . I have always considered a 'bet' on ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing . . . the mother lode of opportunity lies in America."  Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, since 1965 one of the most astoundingly successful financial ventures in the history of the United States, went "all in" to the stock market in 2009 at the depth of the bear market on a "buy American" spree that speaks for itself in terms of success.
     I wish our elected Republican reps could show as much faith in the American economy.  Turning their attention to debt reduction at the expense of  finding ways to grow the economy has become an obsession.  I like when members of my party fight for business-friendly legislation meant to increase efficiency, reduce regulations, open markets and convert tax liabilities into productive avenues for growth by reducing them as an incentive for re-investment.   I hate when Republicans go into debt-hysteria mode and do dumb things like shutting down the government.  Why is it so hard for them to get this?