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)
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?)
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.
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.
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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.