Joe Lowe knows history is against him. South Dakotans haven't elected a Democrat as their governor since 1974. But Lowe believes 2014 is different. In this interview with the Madville Times, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate says his positions on and plans for economic development, education, emergency response, and Medicaid, combined with the missteps made by current Governor Dennis Daugaard, will help Democrats retake the governor's office.
Lowe sees economic development as a key area where he can distinguish himself from the Daugaard administration. Lowe says South Dakota spends too much time trying to recruit out-of-state businesses. He doesn't want to end such recruitment, but he wants to spend more time developing South Dakota's native human capital. Lowe emphasizes the lessons of this 2013 National Governors Association paper on "Top Trends in State Economic Development," which emphasizes creating jobs by supporting new entrepreneurs in-state. He would like South Dakota to follow Nebraska and Tennessee in using Gallup's Entrepreneur Acceleration System to identify and assist local businesses with the greatest growth potential.
Lowe says the business leaders he speaks to says they have trouble finding skilled tradespeople. Governor Daugaard has apparently heard the same complaints, but for all his workforce summits and recruitment initiatives, the problem persists.
Lowe supports economic development, but he has taken strong positions against two big energy projects promising economic benefits, the Keystone XL pipeline and the Powertech/Azarga uranium mining plan. Lowe wants South Dakota to help America achieve energy independence. He wants to promote wind and solar, but he says fossil fuels are still an essential part of the American energy portfolio. If we found Bakken oil under Harding County, Lowe says he'd be happy to drill and pipe it, as along as it was done safely and promoted South Dakota jobs.
Lowe says that if Keystone XL were piping oil to American uses, and if the steel for the pipe were better, and if it were creating more economic boost, he could rethink his position. But as he understands it, TransCanada is building Keystone XL to ship Canadian tar sands oil to China. (Lowe understands correctly.) The steel for the southern leg of the pipe has already shown numerous flaws. Lowe says the steel isn't coming from U.S. mills; it's from China and India (and TransCanada has already ordered and stockpiling that steel on the Great Plains, so approving the pipeline won't result in a surge of more steel production). The pipeline promises to create a couple thousand temporary construction jobs (how many will actually be South Dakotans? Lowe wonders) but only 30 to 50 permanent jobs spread out from Alberta to Nebraska.
That meager benefit, says Lowe, is far outweighed by the potential for ecological disaster. Lowe says tar sands oil isn't like regular crude. The bitumen in it causes spills to sink, making cleanup much more difficult. A pipeline similar to Keystone XL spilled thousands of barrels of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River four years ago, and the riverbed is still a mess. Keystone XL crosses the Missouri River in Montana and the Ogallala Aquifer in South Dakota and Nebraska. The Canadians don't want Keystone XL's risk; why should we take it?
Lowe shows sensitivity to downsides of Keystone XL that will appeal to groups of voters beyond us treehuggers (or, on the prairie, tall-grass-huggers?). He notes that Keystone XL may disturb American Indian burial sites. He recalls that when he was fighting wildfires, he had to bring an archaeologist with him to ensure that his crews didn't dig fire lines through culturally significant areas. Lowe also takes a strong stand against the use of eminent domain for Keystone XL. He said it boggles him that we would allow a foreign company to take land from South Dakota landowners. Hmm... it sounds like Lowe could gain traction with the Indian and cowboy alliance.
Lowe rejects Powertech's uranium in-situ leach mining on the same risk-benefit analysis. From his reading so far on the issue, Lowe concludes mining more uranium from the southern Black Hills won't create a lot of jobs, and the demonstrated risks to groundwater and the land are too great.
Lowe also draws on his experience as state fire chief to highlight another risk in Powertech's plan: what if there's a transportation accident? What if a truck hauling the recovered uranium crashes and starts a fire? Lowe says standard procedure for such a fire would require firefighters to secure a wide perimeter and let the fire burn out rather than risk direct exposure to the spilled radioactive materials. (Bonus danger: throw water on uranium, and you get hydrogen, which is flammable.) Firefighters would also be busy evacuating people downwind from the radioactive smoke plume.
Rather than protecting South Dakota interests, Lowe says the state has too easily given to these energy projects in hopes of making a buck. Governor Daugaard signed a bill in 2011 ceding South Dakota's authority over uranium mining to the EPA; Lowe says he would have vetoed that legislation. Lowe says the state threw tax incentives and rebates at TransCanada for its first Keystone pipeline, even though TransCanada was able and determined to build the project without any state handouts. He says South Dakota's economic developers tried to throw EB-5 money at Keystone XL just to land big commissions.
Given the state's dubious economic development practices, I asked Lowe if he would discontinue the EB-5 visa investment program. Lowe said he can't answer that until we have all the answers about what has happened with EB-5 in the Daugaard and Rounds administrations. Lowe calls EB-5 a "colossal failure" that points to a "culture of corruption" in the state's economic development program. Lowe says EB-5 clearly suffered from a lack of oversight, but we need to understand the full story of that failure. We need to hear from disgraced former EB-5 director Joop Bollen. The Legislature, says Lowe, has avoided its responsibility to dig for answers; Lowe says we need an independent investigation into EB-5 and the Governor's Office of Economic Development to give us the answers we need to proceed with responsible and effective economic development policy.
More oversight is needed in the Future Fund, says Lowe, to prevent corruption. Lowe finds it unacceptable that the governor can hand Future Fund grants to businesses and then receive campaign contributions from honchos in those businesses. Lowe wants stronger, bipartisan oversight of Future Fund grants. He also would like to ban Future Fund recipients from contributing to in-state political campaigns.
Lowe reacts with caution to the idea of flying to China like Governor Daugaard to drum up business for South Dakota. He wants to promote exports for South Dakota, but he says the governor should exercise his muscle strictly in government-to-government contacts to arrange official agreements that can benefit all businesses in the state. Businesspeople accompanying the governor on such foreign trips can serve as experts to help the governor negotiate such agreements, but those businesspeople should negotiate their specific foreign contracts on their own dime.
On education, I asked Lowe how much he thinks a teacher is worth. Quite a bit, said Lowe. We want our kids to compete globally, so we want to have the best teachers. Lowe says drawing the best talent requires offering at least average teacher pay. The national average is $56,383; South Dakota's average is $39,580. Lowe would settle for the regional average: in the six adjoining states, the average is $51,998.
That's a big goal, but Lowe says that where there's a will, there's a way. As Governor, Lowe would establish higher teacher pay as a priority and look for other areas in the budget from which to reallocate money. He'd review existing programs to identify any available efficiencies. If available revenues and other alternatives absolutely could not boost teacher pay enough, Lowe says he would come to the voters, explain the fiscal situation, and ask them to vote on a new funding mechanism, perhaps something like the part-time extra-penny tourism tax proposed by Lowe's neighbor Senator Stan Adelstein in 2011.
Lowe sees a need for better leadership from the governor on disaster response. Still rankled by what he sees as a weak response to the October blizzard, Lowe says that, given an impending storm, he'd be in contact with the weather service to get a clear picture of the threat and with his cabinet to ensure every department was ready. He'd open the state emergency operations center and be the face of storm response, going on the air to advise citizens of big events like the October blizzard and urging them to stock up on supplies and get off the roads. Lowe says Governor Daugaard failed to take those actions last October.
Lowe says the cost of failure in emergency response is too great. He sees no place for political appointees in emergency response; from top management to front-line fire crews, Lowe vows to hire only top-notch professionals for such jobs.
Lowe takes emergency management seriously because it's about protecting people from harm. The same concern for people fuels his passion about the Medicaid expansion. He wonders why we would choose to leave 48,000 South Dakotans out of affordable health care. "It's just mean," says Lowe.
Lowe also says it's foolish for the state to pass up the fiscal benefits of the Medicaid expansion. We gladly take federal funds for other programs, like highway construction and pine beetle mitigation. Lowe says turning down federal dollars for health coverage, as well as all the economic benefits that would come with that fiscal infusion, shows that Governor Daugaard is more influenced by his ultra-conservative base than by broader concern for the well-being of all South Dakotans.
Get out the Word, Get out the Vote
Lowe says he meets Dems who had the wind taken out of their sails by the 2004 and 2010 elections. They worked hard for Tom Daschle and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, only to see those Democrats beaten by half-truths. Those Dems thus hesitate to invest heart and soul in today's Dem campaigns (hmm... sounds like Lowe has been talking to David Newquist).
Lowe says 2014 is different. Lowe tells Dems to look at Daugaard's record on Medicaid, storm response, education, and economic development. Lowe says Dems can win by telling South Dakotans that story, showing them how the current administration has put ideology and cronyism over good management and common interests. Rousing the Irish fight in his genes (his mother immigrated from Ireland), Lowe says he won't let Daugaard evade that record or roll over him with false attacks. Now, says Lowe, he just needs to inspire Dems to lay down the serious cash it will take to counter the GOP money machine, get out his message, and get out the vote.