District 28 Senate candidate Rep. Betty Olson (R-Prairie City) earned herself some media attention this week. It seems only fair that we give her opponent in the Senate race, Parade Democrat Oren Lesmeister, a little air time.

Hat, cattle, and mustache—Oren Lesmeister, Democratic candidate for District 28 Senate

Hat, cattle, and mustache—Oren Lesmeister, Democratic candidate for District 28 Senate

Lesmeister runs Fox Ridge Ag Supply in Parade, Dewey County, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation east of Eagle Butte. He also raises wheat, sunflowers, corn and cattle on his patch of the high plains. He spoke to me Thursday from a motel room in Belle Fourche, about 150 miles from home. District 28 covers more territory than any other legislative district in the state: all of Dewey, Ziebach, Corson, Perkins, and Harding counties, most of Butte, and the northeast corner of Meade—14,700 square miles, almost a fifth of South Dakota, with about 3% of the state's population. He drove 235 miles just the preceding evening

That's sparse country to be out rustling up votes, but Lesmeister says campaigning is an "absolute blast," even for a Democrat campaigning in what Betty Olson's representation makes clear is hard right Republican country. Lesmeister reminds us that he comes from the eastern, reservation side of District 28, which leans Democrat. But even on the western side, where he says he gets skunk eye over that D in front of his name "every day," Lesmeister says he has great conversations with very "receptive" voters.

What do they talk about? Education funding comes up. Lesmeister says his school district, Eagle Butte, comes out better than others, since it receives a fair amount of impact aid from the federal government to make up for tribal land that doesn't pay property tax. But he looks around at the sprawling, far-flung school districts of District 28 and sees the state's "broken" funding formula failing to meet their needs. Lesmeister says we need more money for schools, but he's not proposing new taxes. He first wants to look at the hundreds of millions in sales tax exemptions as well as economic development handouts to corporations as sources of revenue to bolster our schools.

Lesmeister does talk taxes with his neighbors, particularly the agriculture productivity tax. In 2008, South Dakota revised its property tax to assess ag land not on the basis of land sale and rental values but an Olympic average (eight years, drop high and low) of crop prices and yields for comparable land. Lesmeister says that taxing ag land based on the corn or hay it could have produced according to past averages of neighbors' activity is like taxing a 40-story building for 200-stories: you could have built a taller skyscraper, so we're going to tax you as if you had!

Replacing that tax methodology is tricky, and Lesmeister wants to have more conversations with experts, but he'd rather return to assessing land on sale and rental value than keep the current system. At least with land sale prices, says Lesmeister, we're dealing with real numbers.

In general, Lesmeister says, the best tax reform would allow everybody to pay less. But he recognizes that we've got to pay for what we need. Nowhere is that tension more apparent than in road funding. He admires the efforts of Senator Mike Vehle (R-20/Mitchell) to find money to improve our roads. He praises Senator Vehle for pushing people to get beyond griping and propose real solutions. Lesmeister says the ugly reality is that federal funding will dwindle and that state and county governments will have to pick up more of the tab for getting from Buffalo to Timber Lake.

Lesmeister says we could take some of the pressure off our highways by expanding railroads. He doesn't favor state ownership, but he would support incentives for private industry to build more rail shipping capacity.

Lesmeister does not support the Keystone XL pipeline. He says laying pipe across South Dakota to ship North American oil out to the global export market doesn't do South Dakota a bit of good. He challenges the assertion that running against Keystone XL will do in Democrats; in his district, the tribes are strongly opposed to the pipeline, and folks in Bison and elsewhere along the Keystone XL route don't say much nice about the pipeline to Lesmeister. (Remember: Betty Olson thinks Keystone XL is just peachy, as do far too many other South Dakota legislators.) At the very least, Lesmeister says we should learn from examples in Wyoming and North Dakota and not let Big Oil walk all over us.

Lesmeister also talks Medicaid expansion with his District 28 neighbors. He says South Dakota will eventually accept the money being offered under the Affordable Care Act to cover low-income South Dakotans. We have to, says Lesmeister, in part to make up for the $14 million he says we'll lose in the coming year as our increasing state income lowers the federal aid we qualify for under existing Medicaid rules.

Lesmeister recognizes the need for economic development in his big corner of the state, on reservation and off. He says the major challenge to creating jobs in District 28 is not lack of workers or skills; contrary to certain prejudgments, Lesmeister says his neighbors on the Cheyenne River Reservation want to work. Simple geography makes it hard to lure businesses: Eagle Butte and Lemmon are a long way to ship inputs and outputs. Economic development needs to focus on improving and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to connect West River businesses to their suppliers and customers. Lesmeister says Northern Beef Packers would have been a great project to build in his neighborhood, given that it could have relied on local supply. (Hmm... EB-5 to benefit the reservations... don't forget that idea!)

I mention women's issues to Lesmeister, and he focuses on legal protections against domestic abuse and sex trafficking, an issue of particular concern for reservations near the proposed Keystone XL construction camps and the man camps of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. He doesn't propose new laws; he says we can protect women sufficiently by stepping up our enforcement of laws already on the books.

As for abortion rights, Lesmeister says he as a legislator should never decide such issues. He says he would resist legislative efforts to further curtail women's reproductive rights. "It's too big of an issue" for the Legislature to decide, says Lesmeister; any abortion legislation should go straight to the ballot so all South Dakotans can vote.

Lesmeister wants to talk about these issues and everything else on voters' minds right through Election Day. He invites his neighbors to give him a shout via his Facebook campaign page and his campaign phone (605-365-6856—yup, he said I could publish that). Ping him, ring him... Oren wants your thoughts and your vote on November 4!

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Big Ag groups in South Dakota are raising a stink about the EPA's latest proposed regulations to keep our water clean. As we know, this industry-manufactured fuss is mostly myth. The EPA is using science to make clear, consistent rules to protect South Dakota tourism and agriculture.

Mike Rounds won't let truth stop him from advocating that we "shut down" the EPA. But wait—an eager notes that shutting down the EPA would pull the rug out from under farmers who count on the EPA to maintain the ethanol mandate. Rounds liked the federal subsidy that boosted ethanol. Rounds's fellow farm-state Republicans really want the EPA to stick around and force folks to buy more ethanol.

Perhaps Rounds should ask to change his answer: he doesn't really want to shut the EPA down. He just though the E stood for "Ethanol," not "Environment."

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Big Ag crowds out pheasants. To restore pheasant numbers and protect South Dakota's shotgun tourism season, Governor Dennis Daugaard proposes more Big Ag, backed with more big government subsidies:

"Winter wheat is probably one of the best habitats for pheasants, and right now 24 counties in eastern South Dakota cannot get federal crop insurance on winter wheat crops," work group chair Pam Roberts said.

It's one of the first priorities Governor Daugaard plans to address.

"If all of Montana can qualify for crop insurance, why should eastern South Dakota, no more susceptible to freeze-outs than Montana, surely, why can't we?" Daugaard said [Jared Ransom, "Conserve Pheasant Habitat, Increase Pheasant Population," KELOLand.com, 2014.09.09].

I can hardly stifle the giggles. Governor Daugaard has as much trouble with his vaunted "South Dakota self-reliance" and his buddy Mike Rounds has with "South Dakota common sense." We need more pheasants, so we need Uncle Sam to hand out more free money for growing crops that may not grow.

By the way, Pam Roberts, SDSU research says pheasants are 2.5 times more likely to nest in grasslands than in winter wheat. If you're going to throw ideological consistency overboard and seek more government handouts, why not ditch subsidies for Kristi Noem's husband and instead get Rep. Noem to undo her cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program to promote more pheasant-fostering grasslands?

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Want to meet the King of the Netherlands? Go to Emmetsburg, Iowa, Wednesday and see His Majesty Willem-Alexander break a wooden shoe across the bow of the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the country.

The King is coming because Dutch bioscience firm Royal DSM has partnered with Sioux Falls-based ethanol producer POET in Project Liberty, an effort to make ethanol out of something other than stuff we eat. DSM has developed the enzyme that breaks down corn-waste cellulose; POET has built the new processing plant in Emmetsburg that will use DSM's biotech to turn 770 tons of corn stover (cobs, leaves, husks, and stalks) into 20 million gallons (and eventually 25 million gallons) of cellulosic ethanol each year.

A UNL study earlier this year contended that making biofuel from corn stover would do more harm than sticking with gasoline by removing biomass from the soil and reducing farmland's capacity to capture carbon dioxide. The EPA says the study is based on the erroneous assumption that cellulosic ethanol harvesting would remove all of the stover from farm fields. POET says it is promoting sustainable corn waste harvest methods that would leave about 75% of the biomass on the ground to maintain soil nutrients and prevent erosion. We have to burn more fuel to make more passes over the corn fields to collect this biomass, but POET says removing excess corn waste will allow farmers to make fewer tillage passes over their fields to incorporate the remaining residue or make it easier to go to no-till farming.

So welkom Koning Willem-Alexander, and gefeliciteerd en veel geluk to Poet and DSM on making celluslosic ethanol commercially viable.

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Mike from Iowa asked for a close-up of bluestem grass. Can do, Mike!

Bluestem, also known as turkey foot, also known as "ice cream for cattle." (CAH, 2014.08.21)

Bluestem, also known as turkey foot, "ice cream for cattle," and the key to putting the prairie back to work. (CAH, 2014.08.21)

Carter Johnson showed me this native grass and a whole lot more on his EcoSun Prairie Farm on a hot summer morning last week. I've written about Johnson's prairie farm and its philosophy before. The SDSU ecology professor gave a stirring speech on his vision for a working prairie at TedX Brookings last winter. But I wanted to see the Prairie Farm for myself.

Read the rest of this entry...

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While Corinna Robinson talked sense about the Keystone XL pipeline (risk to water supplies, oil shipped to China, jobs nowhere near as numerous or impactful as TransCanada pretends), I hear Rep. Kristi Noem is trying to spread the flow by arguing that TransCanada's tar sands pipeline will free up more rail capacity for farm products.

Alas, farmers are buying this baloney:

Farmers and ranchers have a stake in the Keystone XL project, said Randy Miiller, who farms near Mount Vernon.

Miiller said trucks carrying oil from North Dakota are damaging roads in South Dakota. Meanwhile, the oil companies have been driving up the cost of rail for farmers. There is less rail capacity for farm products, and it's more expensive.

"Without the XL pipeline, to me it's a slow cancer to all the farmers," Miiller said. "It's going to kill us" [Jonathan Ellis, "Noem, Robinson Disagree on Keystone XL Pipeline," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.08.19].

Pssst, Randy! Did you notice that the first Keystone pipeline through East River didn't do diddly to free up rail cars for your corn? That pipeline isn't moving any Bakken crude. 92% of the oil in Keystone XL will be Canadian oil. Even if Bakken producers can get any oil into Keystone XL, they might still prefer to use your rail cars, since they get access to more refineries.

Here's a thought, farmers and Republican Congress critters: if you really think the rail shortage is critical, why not entertain some other, less risky solutions? Instead of eminent domaining West River landowners to transfer their property rights to a private foreign corporation, why not impose on the railroad corporations' rights? Why not require that, at the peak of the harvest, the railroads give priority to American agricultural products?

If we're going to use eminent domain, shouldn't we use it for American interests? And what meets American interests more: shipping mostly Canadian oil, or shipping American corn?

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When Charlie Hoffman and I got done riding four-wheeler around the prairie (and have I mentioned how big I smile when I say that phrase?), we went inside to talk politics. And oh, did we talk.

Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) discusses Pierre politics at his dining room table. (Photo by CAH, 2014.08.19)

Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) discusses Pierre politics at his dining room table. (Photo by CAH, 2014.08.19)

Charlie Hoffman has served three terms as a Republican Representative from District 23. He sat out this year's election, leaving incumbent Rep. Justin Cronin and new-Pierre-comer Michele (one L, just like Bachmann) Harrison to win the GOP primary and ascend without challenge to the State House.

Hoffman is yielding the House floor this year for a handful of personal reasons. He'd like to travel more with his wife, Survivor survivor and motivational speaker Holly Hoffman. Some business matters require his attention back at the ranch. And he has a new hunting dog that he wants to train and bond with properly.

But Hoffman makes his stepback sound like a break, not retirement. He's already looked ahead and seen 2016 as a good opportunity to get back into the House. Rep. Cronin will be termed out, leaving an open seat Charlie can seek without challenging a fellow Republican incumbent.

Hoffman's break appears to have some political motivation right alongside the personal. Hoffman expresses a notable disgust for several aspects of how things are running in Pierre right now. And he said these things to me, a liberal blogger, without the influence of scotch. "I'm a haystacker at heart," said Hoffman, "not a statesman, not a diplomat."

I should check that: did he say haystacker or haymaker? Here they come:

Self-Servers and Legislative Autonomy

Hoffman sees coming a tussle for majority leader in which he does not want to partake. He cites a Janklovian aphorism: "In every class of twenty-some new legislators, fifteen know they'll be governor someday." Hoffman says lots of legislators are serving their political ambitions and trying to put their names (Hoffman offers none) on the marquee. Hoffman would prefer to serve with and be one of the legislators who come to Pierre to serve their districts.

Hoffman says those marquee-seeking legislators create a major problem for the legislative branch. As majority whip, Hoffman says he has seen the Governor happily exploit those self-servers to encroach on the Legislature's proper autonomy. The night before each Legislative workweek begins, Hoffman says the Governor hosts a meeting for all of the GOP House and Senate leaders at the Governor's mansion (read: homefield advantage). The Governor's entire staff attends. The "conversation," says Hoffman, flows mostly one way, as the Governor informs the "leaders" of his plans and priorities for the week. The Governor does not inquire, says Hoffman, about the legislators' plans and priorities. And the GOP leaders, mostly concerned about their place in line, generally accept their weekly marching orders.

Hoffman says this one-way relationship is not how the balance of powers is supposed to work. The Legislature should act independently to bring forth different ideas and allow the best policies to rise via competition. One branch dictating the policy agenda means poorer policy. (What was that Charlie said about pastures with only one kind of grass?) Hoffman wants the climbers to quit climbing and recapture their autonomy and vision. Short of that, Hoffman wishes he could have the opportunity to serve under a Democratic Governor who would rekindle his comrades' commitment to the separation of powers.

(The weird subtext here: we could encourage Republican Charlie Hoffman to run for Legislature in 2016 by electing his Democratic House-mate Susan Wismer Governor this year. Charlie, want to help?)

Harmful Partisanship

Hoffman also expresses annoyance with partisan politics. He says the South Dakota GOP has damaged itself and its candidates by allowing Tea Party agitators to pull the party further right. Local radicals may have gotten a kick out of the SDGOP's impeach-Obama resolution, but recall that such absurd radicalism has boosted Democratic fundraising. Hoffman looks beyond our borders to add that such honyockerism may damage the chances of the national party choosing John Thune for Vice-President in 2016.

Partisanship can damage policy along with party. Hoffman says that, without Medicaid expansion, county governments face higher indigent-care costs, and hospitals either eat losses or pass them on to the rest of us. Expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would erase those costs, says Hoffman. Permit me to remind you that, as Rep. Wismer said Wednesday, the only reason Governor Daugaard seems to have for not expanding Medicaid is partisan ideology.

Future Plans: Raise Teacher Pay!

If circumstances draw Hoffman back to the House, he says he may spend his entire term working on one project: raising teacher pay. He suggests starting by diverting 10% of all gambling revenue (that cut would be over $10 million) to a teacher-pay trust fund. When the fund accrues enough interest, start writing checks, once a year, to every public K-12 teacher in South Dakota.

Our quick calculations suggest this plan might initially place just $500 extra in each teacher's pocket, only a small step toward beating lowly Mississippi, but one must start somewhere. And Hoffman agrees that raising pay will boost the labor pool and ease the teacher shortage.

But wait: gambling revenues currently support property tax relief. Would Hoffman really support taking away that relief? Yes. Instead of handing out pennies per acre, the state could hand that 10% of gambling revenues to the state Investment Council to generate a far larger return.

Agricultural Productivity Tax

If landowners feel harmed by the reduction of gambling-revenue tax relief, Hoffman will make it up to them by getting rid of the agriculture productivity tax. Hoffman says this bastardization of the property tax is even worse than a straight income tax. This tax, which based on the predicted agricultural production value of land instead of its actual productivity or sale price, deters farmers from raising prairie grass and drives hyper-production of only a few high-priced crops. Farmers who switch from corn and beans to grass this year will still pay tax based on what they could have made raising corn for the next eight years. Even farmers who stick with corn will suffer as corn prices drop: they'll makes three to four dollars per bushel this year, but the county will tax them for the next couple years as if their land were seven- or eight-dollar-a-bushel corn. Hoffman says the Legislature needs to change the productivity tax to something fairer.

*   *   *

I asked Hoffman if he worried that my reporting the above comments might harm his chances of returning to the House. He paused to think, but pretty quickly said nope. If I'm reading him right (and stop me if you think I'm letting my hopes and the joy of riding four-wheeler all afternoon confound my judgment), Hoffman is professing a commitment to a less partisan, more pragmatic, and more independent Legislature. Let's see if Charlie and District 23 share that commitment in 2016.

Bonus "Did You Know?": One of the photos in Hoffman's home office shows a man riding down Main Street (I forgot to ask where) atop the backseat of a red convertible with a placard on the door reading "Hoffman for Governor."Charlie said that's his dad Leroy Hoffman, who ran against Bill Janklow in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1978.

Leroy Hoffman also sang opera. He built the house in which Charlie and Holly have raised their family with a beautiful vaulted ceiling for his singing. In the 1960's Hoffman sang well enough to tour Europe professionally. Charlie lived in Europe with his dad for two years during that portion of Leroy's career.

But if you're looking for records, you have to search George Hoffman, not Leroy.

"What," I asked. "Leroy not operatic enough?"

"Yup," said Charlie.

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Senator Larry Tidemann chided Rep. Susan Wismer yesterday for only talking about the bad side of the EB-5 scandal. In that spirit, I am happy to point out that, contrary to the examples of Chairman Tidemann and Governor Daugaard, some Pierre pols keep their eyes, their ears, and their hearts open.

Rep. kathy Tyler (D-4/Big Stone City) writes that immigration is actually good for South Dakota business:

Dairies and other work intensive ag businesses rely heavily on foreign workers. I received a letter from a local farmer during the past year. I learned a lot from it and will quote directly from it:

“We began employing foreign workers through the H-2A visa program in 2011. We had experienced increased difficulty in hiring capable local employees. We made the decision to try the H-2A program as a last resort before being forced to liquidate…….due to lack of labor…The program has provided excellent employees…" [Rep. Kathy Tyler, "Immigration of Children," Kathy's Corner, 2014.07.27].

Rep. Tyler then turns to the Latin American children currently entering our country under a Bush Administration anti-trafficking policy and asks where our hearts and minds are:

These children are fleeing for their lives. I cannot imagine a situation where sending my child away would mean that he or she might live. Let’s be thankful that we don’t need to make that choice. The issue is not settled, and looking at the way things go in Washington, it probably won’t be for a while. I think it’s time to open our hearts and our minds a bit. Remember, they are children [Tyler, 2014.07.27].

We could use more voices of calm, practical decency like Kathy Tyler's in Pierre.

p.s.: If we invited more immigrant children to our fair state, maybe Stickney and Corsica wouldn't have to consolidate.

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