Thursday, January 28, 2016

Get Lost, Trump! We Vets Aren't Your Political Devices

    What a cowardly and conniving dipstick Donald Trump has turned out to be.   He's so terrified at the prospect of facing Megyn Kelly at tonight's Fox News-sponsored Republican primary
Mr. Tough Guy
'Fraidy Cat When It Comes To Kelly
debate that he's ditching it and putting on a political grandstand show designed to raise money for disabled vets.  Chickening out on the debate is his business, but using us disabled vets (I have a partial disability incurred during my Marine Corps service in Vietnam) to shield himself  from a distasteful confrontation makes it mine.
    Far as I'm concerned, Trump can keep his donations.  I'm more than okay with anyone, Trump included, urging support for veterans, but to stage an obvious political stunt by using us as public relations bait?  No way. My personal reaction is amplified this morning by vet groups that have the same distaste for the whole thing.   Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (with nearly 200,000 members) said his organization will decline donations from Trump's event, adding, "we need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts."   VoteVets.org, which claims 400,000 supporters, issued a statement this morning that said, "don't hide from Megyn Kelly behind us."  
     Veterans come in all political (and ethnic, and socio-economic) stripes and we're unified in
Trump v. Kelly
"I Give"
(photos from dailymail.com)
our belief that we served the country, not any of its political components.  
The veterans organizations that I belong to (VFW, Marine Corps League) are officially circumspect about being used as political objects. Both outfits forbid it. Trump's gratuitous and transparent effort at tying his campaign to helping disabled veterans only adds to the rancor and political noise coming out of this cycle's campaign.  If Trump had actually ever put on a uniform that said "United States Of America" and subjected himself to the risks associated with wearing it, he'd be likely to understand why those of us who did abhor being used.  


ADDENDUM (added @1515 1/28:  Here's a conservative site that doesn't think much of Trump's identification with veterans.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What's In A Name? Are You Kidding? When It Comes To Harney, Everything's In A Name

          Talk about falling into the "if it ain't broke don't fix it category," why on earth are some of our state reps tinkering with the South Dakota Board On Geographic Names?  The
Schoenbeck
What's In A Name?
(photo from argusleader.com)
Board, which is charged with replacing offensive place names in our state has been the target of Watertown GOP Rep Lee Schoenbeck and a solid phalanx of Republicans in the House and Senate.  Numbered House Bill 1060, it was at birth an effort to "repeal" the Board, which was created by a law passed in 2009 to "solicit" input on possibly offensive geographical names in various spots throughout South Dakota.  The Board is charged to then "make recommendations to the appropriate local, state and federal agencies" as part of a process to get the names expunged and replaced.

     Apparently, Schoenbeck's intent of repealing the law met with some resistance, so his House Bill now is simply an effort to "revise" the statute.  This is an amendment of some consideration because it keeps the Board in place. The revised bill reads to me like the amendment  leaves everything pretty much intact with some extra emphasis on its charged purpose, which will probably bring the Board’s mission, not its very existence, into focus.  
         That means that despite failing to legislate it out of existence, Schoenbeck still has an opening to redefine its mission.  As he told the RCJ last week, it "got all the work done that the statutes directed them to do."  This is plain crazy because Schoenbeck's assumption is that there are no longer any offensive place names in South Dakota.  Schoenbeck's  ethno-centricity blinds him to the fact that there are indeed offensively named places in this state. Anyone here ever heard of a mass
Harney
Murderer, Kidnapper, Looter
murderer named Colonel William S. Harney? His slaughter, abduction and looting of an Indian encampment in western Nebraska is recognized by the Nebraska State Historical Society as "The Harney Massacre."  Does Schoenbeck just shrug this off as one of those things? Is getting offended by the fact that our most significant mountain in South Dakota is named for a human exterminator just a PC distraction to him? Schoenbeck contended in his RCJ interview that the law creating the Board was intended to replace names that have offensive words like "squaw" and "Negro" in them

and that the recent dust-up over Harney Peak is a "whole different mission."  
     Uh-uh.  It is not a whole different mission. The Board's empowering statute mandates that it "consider issues related to geographical place names." Regarding Harney Peak, this is an "issue" that has been raised by many South Dakotans and the board is charged with “considering” it.  The Board's work is not done and the Harney Peak name change is part of its mission.  By claiming otherwise, Schoenbeck is effectively telling many South Dakotans that their grievance regarding Harney's name is irrelevant--that in fact they are irrelevant.  Even in revision, this bill, at best, is an obnoxious attempt at ignoring people’s concerns.  At worst, it’s an effort at suppressing them. 

Addendum (added at 1613  1/26):  Shortly after I finished this, the SD House passed the bill on a mostly partisan vote.  If the bill becomes law, the state legislature will determine if a site has a name that has to be changed in accordance with state law.  This would effectively disempower the Board On Geographic Names.  
     

Friday, January 22, 2016

Why Limit Drug Testing To Poor Welfare Recipients?

       Lynn DiSanto's arguments favoring mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients are
DiSanto
Assuming The Worst About The Poor?
empty and lacking in research.  
DiSanto is a SD state rep from Rapid City who's the prime sponsor of a bill (HB 1076) that would require "drug testing for certain assistance applicants."  The mandatory drug test would apply to those recieving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and/or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as "food stamps").  The bill's requirement that the tested individual "shall pay the cost of the drug test" seems a bit weird.  These folks are already strapped for cash and these tests can cost up to 30 bucks.  Will they get reimbursed if they pass the test?  Doesn't look like it.  It's also unclear from the bill if the applicants are supposed to pay for the administrative costs of the tests.  If it's we taxpayers that are picking that up, then we need to know how much it will add to South Dakota's budget--a fact that I haven't seen mentioned in any of the discussion on this issue.  
     At some point a cost-benefit analysis needs to be applied to this bill before it gets consideration.  About a year ago Forbes investigated this and concluded that the entire process is a "sham" that amounts to "political pandering."   You can find a ream of similar conclusions by googling around, an exercise that doesn't seem likely to find a single supportive analysis of the subject.  The most common beef is that it doesn't save money and adds much in the way of legal costs where it has been challenged.  Time magazine calls it a "waste of taxpayer money.Do we really need this here?  It would be nice if DiSanto could explain why she thinks South Dakota's experience will differ from what's happened in other states.  
     In the meantime, I'd like to know why others who receive public assistance aren't being required by this bill to be tested for drugs.  Is there something sacred about, say, a proposed business getting public money from the Governor's Office of Economic Development that exempts the principals of that business from drug testing?  There's an inherent odor of discrimination against
Test 'Em All
Or Don't Test Any
(photo from pintrest.com)
poor people in this bill.  DiSanto claims to have some insight into the process because she once was on public assistance, which doesn't make much sense to me because she herself is an example of how welfare is an economically and socially positive enterprise.  I was among the poorest of the poor when my family arrived at Ellis Island in 1950 along with a boatload of other postwar European refugees. We received assistance from social welfare agencies and our home church (Greek Orthodox) for a few years until we got on our feet and became living exponents of the American dream.  Visualizing my parents being forced to provide urine samples before getting our assistance is demeaning and obnoxious.  We have a presumption of innocence in this country, which implicitly extends to a presumption of good faith. We can do better than suspecting the worst about those who need some help.  

     

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Trump's Mexican Wall Is Risky Business For South Dakotans

     I haven't found much in the way of objective sources to support the feasibility or
In Trump We're Supposed To Trust
E Pluribus Baloney
(photo from perezhilton.com)
practicality of Donald Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
You might have better luck finding some agreeable analyses, and I invite you to share your sources here. In the meantime, all the research I did came up with conclusions and professional opinions that uniformly pan the idea as unwieldy and technically implausible.  I listened to Trump's speech at Liberty University yesterday and got his usual (and typically unsupported with details) claim that as a builder he has vast experience with such projects, implying that we should trust him to get the job done.  His claim that he'll get Mexico to pay for it (by blocking transfer payments from here to Mexico) seems doubtful in this day and age of electronic commerce and legal obstacles, but his followers apparently don't care much about how he intends to get the thing built at Mexico's expense.  Their enthusiastic fealty has propelled Trump into serious contention for the presidency, a prospect that business-oriented South Dakotans should consider before buying into this election cycle's Trump-O-Rama.

     Mexico is South Dakota's 2nd largest export market.  We South Dakotans  annually sell about $1.6 billion worth of goods offshore, most of it to Canada (about $700 million) and Mexico (about $350 million).  For some perspective, that $350 million to Mexico represents the value (using
Trump's Wall And Commerce?
Build It And They Won't Come
(photo from foxnews.com)
today's prices at the Chicago Board of Trade) of about 70% of South Dakota's 2015 wheat harvest. 
 This is a serious chunk of our state's agricultural output being sold to a customer that could probably just as easily secure its imports of ag products from any number of eager sellers around the world. Building a Berlin-style wall isn't the way to foster better relations with one of our best customers.  On the contrary, it sets an adversarial tone that doesn't do anybody any good, especially South Dakota farmers who depend on Mexican business as a market for their products.   
     And we're just one among many states that depend on Mexico as a customer, many of them even more so than South Dakota does. 26 other states call Mexico their leading trading partner, and 7 million American jobs depend on trade with Mexico. The implications of building a wall between symbiotically dependent countries like ours lead me to one conclusion:  it would be a disaster.
     Does this mean that the U.S., in our zeal to preserve good customer relations, needs to roll over and acquiesce to Mexico when it comes to its immigration relationship with us?  Of course not.  Some things bear changing, particularly in the way of enforcing immigration laws that are already on our books. But going the Trump route with that draconian fantasy of his?  No way.  As most of us know, we're better off trying to make friends than make enemies, and considering the way that our relationship with Mexico has evolved into so many business and cultural ties, abruptly walling ourselves off from each other will only encourage Mexico to look elsewhere for products that they're currently buying from South Dakota.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Dennis Daugaard, Road Warrior

Geronimo!!!!
Gov. Daugaard Shows Some Moxie
(photo from usatoday.com)


    Agree with him or not, you have to be impressed by SD Governor Dennis Daugaard's ascension into statesmanship with yesterday's State of the State speech.   His epiphany regarding teacher salaries and Medicaid expansion was clear, stark and unequivocal.  Throw in politicallycourageous and you have the makings of a governor who just might go down as one of the more transformative leaders in this state's history.                                                                               Daugaard's acknowledgement of the shabby salary schedule applied to South Dakota's teachers is something we've known since he appointed a task force to study it last year.  It's his understanding of the role that state government has to play in the situation that has the marks of enlightenment.  Just two years ago he was telling the Sioux Falls Argus Leader  "the state doesn't control teacher pay.  To point the finger at the state and say you are the problem here, it just, it's not accurate.  If school districts want to spend more money for teacher pay that's what they can do." I found his dismissal of responsibility to be a glaring lack of understanding that quality educators are a major component of our state's infrastructure and challenged him to turn our public schools into the asset that they need to be.  I'm glad that I was a part of the noise that finally captured his attention, with the results so clearly elucidated in yesterday's speech. His plan for funding the 20% increase in teacher salaries this year--a half-cent hike in sales taxes--is not my favorite, but for now it's probably the most politically practical and expedient.  Selling the tax hike as a dedicated revenue stream that goes to teacher salaries seems like a pitch that has a decent chance of success. I believe more efficient results could be obtained by overhauling our sales tax code's list of exemptions, which total nearly $1 billion a year.  That would be a more productive way of generating the $80 million or so needed to fund the new teacher pay scale, especially as its aims would be at special interest groups, not the general public.  But that can wait.  Let's get Daugaard's immediate approach done now and talk sales tax reform later.
     Medicaid expansion isn't quite so abrupt a turnaround in Daugaard's thinking. A year ago he was carefully noting to WNAX radio that the subject was under discussion, though at the time WNAX said that Daugaard "was generally opposed to expansion," which I think was the overall sense that most of us got. Still, as Daugaard has noted, he never said "never," which was a good calculation on his part, considering that Medicaid expansion has plenty of healthcare and fiscal benefits attached to it--points that Daugaard made with clarity and passion in yesterday's speech.  I especially admired the precautions that he took when explaining the financial risks, assuming nothing in the way of broad fiscal gains by the infusion of a couple of billion dollars into the state's economy over the course of the next few years.  Though many have argued that the economic gains are abundant, Daugaard prudently ignores them as he presents the plan, which appears to be workable even if those gains never accrue. Daugaard also made it clear that withdrawing from the plan if Obamacare--which spawned the Medicaid expansion opportunity in the first place--is repealed would basically just put us back to the status quo.  Giving Medicaid expansion a try is not an irreversible decision.  Opponents and their scare tactics aren't making much sense, though I have no doubt they'll be fighting this one hard during the session.  My take is that facts and what I believe is the strong support of the healthcare community in the state will overwhelm them.  We're talking serious money to be left on the table if we don't go with this.  

     think both initiatives have a good chance of succeeding, especially if South Dakotans can mobilize some grass roots efforts at getting their support across to our legislators.  No doubt Daugaard probably has just about every Democrat in the state supporting him.  I'm confident a reasonable share of my fellow Republicans--who understand that wise investing leads to substantial returns--can see the economic gains that we'll derive from a world-class cadre of teachers and a gush of federal money coming into the state via Medicaid.  That our kids will continue to get great educations and that tens of thousands (around 50k per Daugaard's estimate) of South Dakotans will get easier access to good healthcare make these deals too tempting to ignore.  
     

Monday, January 11, 2016

Of Pipe Dreams And Nightmares . . . Of South Dakota Sales Tax Reform

A Ripoff?
We Need To Look At This
(photo from legalzoom.com)
     Some serious bucks are slipping through the fingers of South Dakota residents thanks to a  generous allotment of sales tax exemptions. Considering that around 80% of our state's tax revenues come from sales and use taxes, which amounted to about $1.2 billion in 2014, it's amazing to me that we leave nearly that much on the table by a pretty darn liberal distribution of exemptions amounting to nearly $1 billion in 2015.  I hope you'll take the time to review this eye-poppingly long list of exemptions and ask yourself if there is some way it can be pared down to a point where a serious amount of those exempted potential revenue sources can be harnessed and put to work in our state.
    After going through the list myself I'm actually pretty dismayed.  As I've noted here in the past, I find a lot of these exemptions to be outdated and outrageous.  About a third of the exemptions ($350 million) are given to the "Agriculture Group," many of which look more like handouts than reasonable recognitions of the fact that many of the sales (feed, fertilizer and livestock, for example) are effectively wholesale in nature.  Those should be exempted.  But I have reason to question some others: while I have to pay sales tax from my business to mechanics, fuel providers and insecticides, ag producers don't. Those three exemptions alone total almost $60 million a year.  Farmers and ranchers are businesspeople like everybody else and their forays into the retail markets for operating supplies and services on a sales tax-free basis makes no sense to me. My biz is as integral a part of South Dakota's economy as theirs.  For example, I get mechanics to work on my equipment just like a farmer does.  Why should that farmer get a tax break that I don't get?  
     And now that I bring it up, I'm wondering about some of the exemptions allowed in a couple of groups much closer to my personal home.  Consider the "Business Group."  Advertising agencies don't have to charge sales tax on their services, exempting them from nearly $20 million a year in collections for the state. Meantime, commodity brokers in the "Financial Group" don't have to charge up to $7 million worth of sales taxes. Insurance company agents don't collect $3.5 million for their products and services.  Even rodeo clowns get a break, not having to charge rodeos for their services.  I'd like to know how the rodeo clown lobby packs enough clout to get that tax break, lol.  
     There are more.  It's a long list, worthy of review.  My friend Cory Heidelberger suggests in his
Not Pretty
Tax Reform Might Help
(table from itep.org)
blog Dakota Free Press that sales tax reform
 
should be on the legislative agenda, which of course is the "pipe dream" I alluded to in the title.  Doing that would, after all, instigate the "nightmare" for special interest groups that have had a long-standing position in the exempted class.  But given the tightness of money in this state that could be dedicated to improving teacher salaries and funding infrastructure repair, a comprehensive examination of the exemptions is long overdue.  People and businesses who are spared from paying sales taxes are gaining just as much benefit from the services that sales taxes provide as the rest of us.  I think there's room for spreading out the obligation and helping out with the state's fiscal challenges.

     
     

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

SD Minimum Wage Goes Up, Economy Responds Favorably, Naysayers Repudiated

     Some decent news about South Dakota's economy in 2015 got the new year off to an encouraging start.  This morning's Rapid City Journal reports that "the state's economy is strong, unemployment drops, and tax revenues rise." Recalling last year's bruising ballot battle over a minimum wage increase in South Dakota, supporters of the measure, me included, have to feel pretty good about how things shook out after we won at the polls and the new minimum wage took effect on January 1, 2015, a year that ended with an economic flourish.  The unemployment rate, at 3.0%, fell to its lowest level since before the 2008 recession, with total employment rising to above pre-recession levels.  Meantime, sales and use taxes rose a bit over 4%, nearly a full percent higher than expectations.  
     These numbers didn't come as much of a surprise to me because in our consumer driven society,
Three Reasons?
Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong
(photo from sdra.org)
it just follows that higher wages will drive more purchases, which in turn stimulates the economy. Using an analysis from the South Dakota Budget and Policy Institute, which showed that 80,000 South Dakota wage earners would get an immediate $1.25 an hour raise, it was fairly easy to conclude that the extra couple of hundred bucks a month of purchasing power for all those folks would add $15 million a month to South Dakota consumer spending.  

     Based on that, I was mystified as to why Governor Daugaard opposed the minimum wage hike.  He famously said, "this issue should be based on economics, not politics.  There needs to be an analysis of how many jobs would be lost."  It seemed pretty clear to me that the economic argument favored a wage hike, and of course as it turned out, not only were no jobs lost, but there was a net increase in new jobs over the year.  Why Daugaard couldn't understand that is probably more of a reflection of his political tilt than a bow to common economic sense, the very mindset that he was opposed to.  The economic argument was compelling, the political one self-serving.  
     My guess is that Daugaard was swayed by the siren song of the South Dakota Retailers Association (of which I'm a member in good standing) which forecast ominous results stemming from a minimum wage increase.  SDRA fought the issue with everything it had, even sending a spokesman from Pierre to Rapid City to weigh in against the measure at a public forum. SDRA blanketed the state with an ad campaign that predicted a higher minimum wage would "trigger higher prices, layoffs, cuts in hours for workers, and delays in making needed improvements."  No doubt there were some spot instances where some or all of those eventualities occurred, but its clear from year end summaries that South Dakota's economy moved forward nicely in the aggregate.  The opposition to
Wages Going Up In SD
The Up-Arrow Applies To The Economy Too
(graphic from waow.com)
the wage hike had it all wrong. 

     Did the wage hike by itself trigger the nice little boomlet South Dakota's economy had in 2015?  You could argue that there were several, maybe many factors that made it happen.  My view is that the surge in spending power by wage earners had to play a significant role.  If there's a conclusion to be derived here, it's that finding ways to increase wages in South Dakota certainly doesn't lend itself to the economic woes that opponents of higher wages predict.  As our agricultural community knows well enough, money is like manure.  It doesn't do any good unless you spread it around.