Last I checked, South Dakota Progress is looking to play very, very nicely with the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Maybe they shouldn't. Bill Curry, a former Clinton White House advisor who has batted .333 in his own election efforts, says the Democratic Party got beat up nationwide this election year because, since the late 1970's, it has sold out to Wall Street and shut out its problem-solving progressive voices. Curry recommends liberals take charge, go their own way, and dare Democrats to follow:

They can do it but they’ll have to take a time-out from electoral politics. They must declare their independence from the Democratic Party, its ineffectual politics and its current, clueless leaders....

Democrats in Congress seem bent on mass suicide. After their landslide loss they reelected all their leaders without challenge. After the Senate confirmed two utterly unqualified Obama donors as foreign ambassadors, they caved on a budget that opened more sluices for the rich to pour money into politics and hollowed out Dodd/Frank to let Wall Street cover its bad bets with depositors’ money. In 2013 Obama said he wouldn’t “pay ransom” to pass a budget. In 2014 he did just that.

A Progressive Declaration of Independence is a risk, but it’s safer than idling about on deck as the Democrats’ ship goes down... [Bill Curry, "Let's Abandon the Democrats: Stop Blaming Fox News and Stop Hoping Elizabeth Warren Will Save Us," Salon, 2014.12.23].

Curry sounds much like William Greider, who wrote in November that the national Democratic Party has lost its soul and called for a "rump formation of dissenters" to break the spell corporate power has cast on Democrats.

Rick Weiland tried to flex independence from national Democrats and from Big Money in his Senate campaign this year. That didn't go so well, but he is still preaching that same message to South Dakota Democrats. I continue to think that's the right message for South Dakota Democrats and for anyone willing to help them.

I do not think Curry's analysis ports neatly from the national level to South Dakota. Our state Dems are not in Washington collaborating with Republicans to gild Wall Street's throne. Our state Dems aren't in Washington, period, now that Tim Johnson is out. Unlike national Democrats, South Dakota Dems responded to the midterm election by electing new leadership. South Dakota Democrats may be in as good a position to break with Washington and sound Curry's progressive populist bugle as a separate progressive group like South Dakota Progress.

But the question remains, for South Dakota Progress as well as for anyone else hoping to restore progressive fortunes in South Dakota: do we work within the machine, or do we build a new one?

Related Reading: WaPo Fix blogger Philip Bump wonders what would happen if both Republicans and Democrats cleaved into two parties.

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The new pawn shop payday lending magnate Chuck Brennan talked up in his Christmas card is now in the news. Brennan gets that Sioux Falls paper to promote his new Badlands Pawn, scheduled to open next Thanksgiving.

Brennan tells Jodi Schwan that he plans to spend $15 million to open not just a pawn shop but a 40,000-square-foot entertainment complex across from the new Sanford Premier Center as a response to what seems to be Brennan's gut feeling that plain old capitalism is a drag:

Somewhere [the pawn business] got to the point where it started to become a financial transaction and the showroom started losing its fun and people were just pawning stuff because they needed money, and they weren’t going for the pawnshop experience [Chuck Brennan, quoted in Jodi Schwan, "Entertainment Complex Coming near Events Center," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.12.25].

Brennan's right: capitalism has no soul!

To make business more fun, the "Largest Pawn shop in the Midwest" will include a gold foundry, a gun shop, a shooting range (free for cops!), its own FM radio station with live DJs simulcasting on 30+ stations, a house band led by Metal Cowboy Ron Keel and auditioning professional players and back-up singers now, a tattoo shop offering free Badlands Pawn ink, and a ticket broker providing all your scalping needs in one convenient location within easy walking distance of Sioux Falls' new concert venue. Brennan promises to fly the largest American flag on the largest flagpole (yes, that's phallic) in South Dakota. Brennan also plans to hire nearly 100 workers.

I don't know if Pawn of America will "restructure the tourism routes in the Midwest," but Brennan's pawn shop does sound like fun. And since Brennan is diversifying his portfolio into entertainment, he'll feel even less pain when we cap interest rates in 2016 and drive him out of the usury business. Everybody wins!

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Public votes always get a cheer from this small-d democrat. The latest outbreak of direct democracy happens in Rapid City, where petitioners say they have gathered over 2,700 signatures, nearly 700 more than necessary, to put the city's financing of an expansion of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to a vote.

Petitioner Pro Tip #8: Paste your issue in big letters on the back of your clipboard! Excellent idea, Don! (Screen cap from Jack Caudill, "Organizer Says Civic Center Petition Drive off to Good Start," KEVN, 2014.12.11.)

Petitioner Pro Tip #8: Paste your issue in big letters on the back of your clipboard! Excellent idea, Don! (Screen cap from Jack Caudill, "Organizer Says Civic Center Petition Drive off to Good Start," KEVN, 2014.12.11.) 

Referendum petitions usually come from opponents of government decisions. But the Civic Center petitioners include some of the biggest supporters of Rapid City's Rushmore Plaza expansion plan. Civic Center board member Don Frankenfeld (shall we emphasize Don?) spearheaded the petition drive, distributing the first petitions the same night that the city council approved the expansion. Mayor Sam Kooiker voted for the expansion in council on December 1, then gathered about 400 signatures:

Kooiker said he found it easy to gather signatures because just about everyone he encountered thought a public vote would be in Rapid City's best interest.

"Everyone on both sides wants this vote," he said.

"People have asked me if I think this project is too big," he said. "I tell them, 'Yes, it's too big for today, but it's not too big for tomorrow.' This is an investment in the future" [Scott Feldman, "Mayor: Petition Collects Enough Signatures, Civic Center Will Be Voted On," Rapid City Journal, 2014.12.26].

Former councilman Jordan Mason was taking the city to court over alleged technical violations of law in passage of the expansion plan, but Mason withdrew that court challenge earlier this month, apparently to make way for the referendum.

Former councilman Ron Sasso agrees that the $180-million project should be put to a public vote. However, Sasso has written that Rapid City should spend five years catching up on improving roads before investing in a Civic Center upgrade.

Whether the expansion plan survives referendum or not, Rapid City has to do something. The Barnett Arena in the Civic Center violates the Americans with Disabilities Act; in October, the city signed an agreement with the Justice Department to rectify those 402 ADA violations within 30 months. So, Rapid City, you can vote against the expansion plan, but you can't vote to do nothing.

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I'm not ready to hit the top stories of the year cycle quite yet (six days left! who knows what could happen?!), but Bob Mercer is. South Dakota's last full-time statehouse reporter picks five top South Dakota political stories of 2014:

  1. Rounds wins Senate seat.
  2. Krebs wins Secretary of State.
  3. Democrats nominate women for governor and lieutenant.
  4. State retirement fund earns 18.9% net return.
  5. Voters increase minimum wage.

Mercer does not lay out criteria for "top political stories." Most of his choices seem to revolve around ongoing impact on South Dakota's politics and economy. Ousting the last Democrat from statewide office certainly has ongoing impact on the political landscape. So will changing our top election official: smarter and tougher Shantel Krebs can promote the Republican agenda of Democratic vote suppression much more aggressively than half-checked-out Jason Gant. Our recovering retirement fund promises future economic security, while our minimum-wage hike provides a little economic boost and economic justice right now. The minimum-wage hike also affirms the power of Democrats to promote their pro-working-class agenda through initiatives.

But Mercer's #3 seems the odd woman out. The Dems' executive office nominees, Susan Wismer and Susy Blake, are nice people. But their all-female candidacy is "historic" only in the driest, textbook sense of the word. Wismer and Blake didn't win. They didn't blaze new trails in campaign organizing, fundraising, or get-out-the-vote activities. They didn't capitalize on their womanliness to raise awareness of or change the conversation about women's issues in South Dakota. The Wismer-Blake ticket seemed to win nothing more than its own Trivia Crack™ South Dakota Edition entry, and even that achievement is twinned with failure: political gurus discussing the first all-gal ticket will inevitably mention that ticket was also the biggest loser, ceding the Governor's office to the incumbent by 45 points.

I welcome your critique of Mercer's list and your own lists below; stay tuned in the coming days for my own blog-based lists of big South Dakota news, based on your comments and my own criteria... once I've recovered from all those Christmas Swedish meatballs and pickles! Mmmm....

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Politico's Michael Grunwald notes that we don't get Pulitzers for writing good news. But on this Christmas, Grunwald says America is looking not just un-Pulitzerly, but more Bricksburgally awesome than many people expected:

Mitt Romney promised to bring unemployment down to 6 percent in his first term; it’s already down to 5.8 percent, half the struggling eurozone’s rate. Newt Gingrich promised $2.50 gas; it’s down to $2.38. Crime, abortion, teen pregnancy and oil imports are also way down, while renewable power is way up and the American auto industry is booming again. You don’t have to give credit to President Barack Obama for “America’s resurgence,” as he has started calling it, but there’s overwhelming evidence the resurgence is real. The Chicken Littles who predicted a double-dip recession, runaway interest rates, Zimbabwe-style inflation, a Greece-style debt crisis, skyrocketing energy prices, health insurance “death spirals” and other horrors have been reliably wrong [Michael Grunwald, "Everything Is Awesome!Politico, 2014.12.24].

Matthew Yglesias posted a chart in this happy vein last week showing how the U.S. has outperformed its international economic partners in recovering from the economic crash of 2008:

GDP since 2008 crash for U.S. and friends

(Source: Council of Economic Advisors, via Yglesias 2014.12.18)

More Americans are working full-time, continuing a trend from 2013.

And in more great Christmas news, Dish Network has dropped Fox News after contract negotiations failed. Now 14 million Dish subscribers can spend the holidays detoxing from Fox's false-fear-o-rama (say, as Grunwald mentioned, whatever happened to Ebola?).

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You don't get all the toys you want, because Mom and Dad need to keep a little money in the bank, just in case you crack your skull riding that new sled. Now go outside and play.

South Dakota state government operates the same way, sternly denying us all our desires in case we do dumb things, like building houses in flood plains. But South Dakota is a more stern (nervous? stingy?) parent than most states.

According to reports found on the Bureau of Finance and Management's nifty new dashboard, which our green eye-shade friends in Pierre were poetically tweeting about yesterday, Governor Dennis Daugaard has increased our budget reserve from $43.4 million at the beginning of his reign in 2011 to $105.2 million as of November 2014. Governor Daugaard has kept our monthly general fund cash balance at a yearly average of about $100 million. BFM says we currently have 37.3 days of general fund cash on hand. If police brutality protesters could organize a mass economic boycott and get South Dakotans to buy nothing and withhold all property tax payments, the state could cruise along for a month and a week before bouncing any checks.

According to the fall 2014 report of National Association of State Budget Officers, South Dakota's rainy-day funds equal 10.7% of our state expenditures. The national average is 5.9%. Only seven states maintain higher rainy-day balances:

  • New Mexico: 10.8%
  • Texas: 16.6%
  • North Dakota: 16.8%
  • Nebraska: 17.2%
  • West Virginia: 20.1%
  • Wyoming: 50.4%
  • Alaska: 194.7%

While we strive to maintain the eighth-highest budget reserve in the nation, we take no action to raise ourselves out of the gutter for teacher pay. If we reduced our budget reserve to a percentage that aligned with national averages, we would free up about $47 million, which would be enough to fund half of my moonshot plan to raise every South Dakota K-12 teacher's pay by $10,000.

Better teacher pay isn't some extravagant Christmas gift that threatens our fiscal stability. It's a necessary investment that keeps good teachers at the whiteboard and builds long-term strength to our workforce and fiscal outlook.

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Who says I can't celebrate Christmas? I observe the holiday with a poem for South Dakota Magazine. Here's the first stanza of my meditation on the Build Dakota Scholarship:

Cory Allen Heidelberger, Christmas Eve poem on Build Dakota Scholarship, first stanza, 2014.12.24Check out the full poem at South Dakota Magazine. Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, God Jul, and С Рождествoм!

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Senator John Thune is laying the rhetorical groundwork necessary to rationalize the shift he and Mike Rounds will have to make to lift the embargo against Cuba and boost donor Jeff Sveen's chances to sell Hutterite turkey in Havana. Senator Thune told the Sioux Falls Rotary Monday that opening trade with Cuba will boost South Dakota agriculture...

"Soybean production here in South Dakota could meet a lot of needs they have in Cuba for that product and that commodity, so there's upside potential and I think we have to recognize that," Thune said [Ben Dunsmoor, "Thune Open to Cuba Plan If Reforms Made," KELOLand.com, 2014.12.23].

...but Thune's not ready to give up his party's political club:

Before Thune would support anything, he says, he would like to see the communist country make political reform and take other progressive steps such as opening up Internet access.

"There are some things in this that could be beneficial for South Dakota but overall lifting the embargo I think there are conditions that have to be met before I could support that. There's so much more that regime needs to do to prove to the rest of the world that they really are serious about modernizing and reforming," Thune said [Dunsmoor, 2014.12.23].

Republican blogger John Tsitrian calls Senator John Thune's position on Cuba ridiculous. Tsitrian wonders how Senator Thune can subordinate clear economic gains to an ideologically (translate: oppose Obama!) misreading of history:

[R]ejection of a pragmatic consideration in favor of a principle may have some honorable intent, but when the principle itself isn't supported by the reality of History, the intent rings with the hollowness of political dogma.  When you consider the advances in living conditions and economic opportunities for billions of people since the evolution of free trade that has been in force since the end of World War II, it seems that Thune lacks an understanding of cause-and-effect. Trade itself has been the medium for the elevation of political and economic freedoms, mainly because ideas and ideals flow just as freely as goods and services when markets open up [John Tsitrian, "Re: The Cuban Trade Embargo. Sounds Like Senator Thune Is More a Student of Polemics Than a Student of History," The Constant Commoner, 2014.12.23].

Mr. Tsitrian makes the case for normalizing trade relations with Cuba almost as well as Senator Thune as made the case for normalizing trade relations with much worse offenders. Let's look at what Senator Thune said about granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Cuba's old friend Russia in 2012:

“American businesses and entrepreneurs will no longer face a competitive disadvantage in the Russian market.... The Senate’s adoption of Russia PNTR today opens up new possibilities for American manufacturers, farmers, ranchers, and service providers. Not only does this legislation support American jobs by promoting our products and services abroad, but it will also help to strengthen the rule of law and combat corruption with the inclusion of the Magnitsky human rights provisions. Russia is the fifth largest importer of agricultural products and imported nearly $32 billion in agricultural commodities last year, making it a tremendous opportunity for commodity exporters. I look forward to President Obama signing this bill into law, and ensuring we do not delay job creation and export opportunities both in South Dakota and across the country.” [Senator John Thune, press release, 2012.12.06].

Putin's Russia is repressing political freedom at home and abroad and threatening  international peace and stability more than either Castro's Cuba has for the last 25 years. Yet Senator Thune encouraged President Obama to extend the same trade relations to  tantruming nuclear tyrant Russia that he's unprepared to extend to far more amenable and unthreatening neighbor Cuba.

Or rewind to May 24, 2000, when Representative John Thune voted to grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Communist China. Rep. Thune saw trade with China as an essential part of addressing ag difficulties in South Dakota. In 14 years, Thune has not reversed his China-trade position, despite China's ongoing censorship, human rights abuses, and ongoing war against religion.

U.S. military and intelligence experts determined in 1997 that Cuba posed a "negligible conventional military threat" to the United States and other neighboring countries. Since then, Cuba's military has only declined further. Cuba poses no threat, while Russia and China do. Cuba has 3% of the GDP of Russia and less than 1% of the GDP of China. I suspect those differences explain Senator Thune's free-trade disconnect. He's willing to thump his chest and demand progressive reforms from little guys, but when the big boys with bulging billfolds and bombers come knocking, principle yields to pragmatism, and Senator Thune opens the trade door wide.

Come on, Senator Thune! Havana hotels and Cuban beaches beckon! Get consistent, and lift the embargo now!

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