Monday, July 25, 2016

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

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

No Political Debates At Dakotafest This Year? Bummer.

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

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

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

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Chance To End Gerrymandering In South Dakota

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

Monday, July 4, 2016

Time For South Dakota Government To Go Non-Partisan

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