Small sacrifice to fight Putin and jihadis?

Bob Mercer notes that county emergency responders lack the training and resources to deal with oil train accidents. County emergency management officials don't even get updates on what sort of toxic train materials are moving through or parking in their counties. State Emergency Response Commission chairman Bob McGrath says that in response to this increased risk to emergency responders and the public at large, the Legislature is likely to do nothing:

The commission’s chairman, Bob McGrath of White, said training money is available, but he doesn’t know where equipment money would be found.

McGrath said he doesn’t foresee the Legislature imposing fees and won’t allow special tax assessments. “I think the legislation approach probably is not going to work,” he said [Bob Mercer, "Oil Trains Present Unmet Challenges for South Dakota," Aberdeen American News, 2014.12.16].

The Emergency Response Commission called for no action.

As we wait unprepared for the next messy derailment, let us take comfort in the fact that we are sacrificing our local safety to support the global war on bad guys. Our oil production is putting a serious crimp in Vladimir Putin's style:

Putin's Russia, like the USSR before it, is only as strong as the price of oil. In the 1970s, we made the mistake of thinking that the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan meant that we were losing the Cold War, when the reality was that they had stumbled into their own Vietnam and could only afford to feed their people as long as oil stayed sky-high. The USSR's economic mirage, though, became apparent to everybody—none less than their own people, who had to scrounge in empty supermarkets—after oil prices bottomed out in the 1980s. That history is repeating itself now, just without the Marxist-Leninism. Putin could afford to invade Georgia and Ukraine when oil prices were comfortably in the triple digits, but not when they're half that. Russia can't afford anything then [Matt O'Brien, "Sorry, Putin. Russia's Economy Is Doomed," Washington Post: Wonkblog, 2014.12.15].

We and the Saudis are also helping beat the Islamic State thugs, who can't command as high a price for the product of their commandeered oil fields. Well, that, and we're blowing up the oil infrastructure they control.

So anyone willing to trade local emergency responder safety and environmental integrity for geopolitical wins against Russia and the caliphate?

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Rep. Peggy Gibson (D-22/Huron) is ready to do some serious work in Pierre this session. Responding to her legislative colleagues' inaction on the EB-5 scandal, Rep. Gibson writes in last Wednesday's Plainsman that South Dakota needs an ethics commission to combat both corruption in government and cynicism among the voters:

Did you know that South Dakota has neither comprehensive state ethics laws nor an ethics commission to oversee state officials and bureaucrats? In fact, South Dakota is one of only nine states that lack an ethics commission. Ethics commissions are established in either state statute or the constitution and provide external oversight of ethics laws.

Ethics commissions represent the public's interest and have a similar purpose: to ensure that groups under their jurisdiction follow state ethics laws. As regulatory entities, ethics commissions have various powers and duties, including investigating complaints of violations of ethics laws, providing advisory opinions to individuals under the commission's jurisdiction and offering ethics training. Many commissions have the power to prosecute and/or levy sanctions on the offender [Rep. Peggy Gibson, "News from the House," Huron Plainsman, print edition, 2014.12.03].

The Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee proved itself unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute clear violations of conflict-of-interest rules and state law by players in the EB-5 program. Players throughout state government have been involved in the EB-5 mess, which has evidently made it hard to get any state agency to take the proper action against ethical violations. The Attorney General's office has known about ethical violations associated with EB-5 since 2009 and has refused to take action.

The dereliction of duty our Attorney General and Legislature have shown on EB-5 only heightens cynicism about government. Rep. Gibson cites this 2010 article from the National Conference of State Legislatures to warn us of how cynicism makes our politics worse:

Cynicism discourages qualified people from running for office, promotes a reluctance by members to address unpopular but necessary issues, encourages simplistic institutional reforms such as term limits, and increases the public’s unwillingness to comply with legislative decisions [Karl Kurtz and Brian Weberg, "What Legislatures Need Now," NCSL, July/August 2010].

Rep. Gibson believes a strong ethics commission would dispel cynicism and improve South Dakota politics. Establishing such a commission, however, won't be easy. An ethics commission must come either from the Legislature that doesn't want ethical matters investigated or from an initiating electorate whose cynicism may keep them from believing that such a commission could make a difference.

The difficulty of overcoming both cynicism and corruption makes it all the more necessary for reformers like Rep. Gibson to speak up and fight for an ethics commission.

Rep. Peggy Gibson, column, Huron Plainsman, 2014.12.03

Rep. Peggy Gibson, column, Huron Plainsman, 2014.12.03

p.s.: Speaking of integrity, Rep. Gibson should check with the editors at the Plainsman, who appear to have misplaced some vital quotation marks in her column. The passage I quote above properly appears in quotation marks in the print edition I'm reading. However, the sentences before that passage in Rep. Gibson's column also appear mostly verbatim in Kurtz and Weberg 2010 and should also be enclosed in those quotation marks, lest anyone throw a plagiarism flag.

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  • chimpsSenator Larry Tidemann, Chair
  • Senator Phyllis Heineman
  • Senator Jean Hunhoff
  • Senator Blake Curd
  • Senator Larry Lucas
  • Representative Dan Dryden, Vice Chair
  • Representative Melissa Magstadt
  • Representative Justin Cronin
  • Representative Mark Mickelson
  • Representative Susan Wismer

These ten South Dakota legislators, the current members of the Government Operations and Audit Committee (GOAC), are responsible for a farcical travesty of legislative inquiry and public accountability. These ten legislators have foisted on South Dakotans the insult masquerading as a report fulfilling their duty to investigate the Governor's Office of Economic Development and South Dakota's troubled EB-5 visa investment program.

Lied to by former governor and now Senator-Elect Mike Rounds, bamboozled by lawbreaking EB-5 profiteer Joop Bollen, and spun by the shifting story of Attorney General Marty Jackley, these ten legislators have shrugged and endorsed the cowardly, sandy-headed fall-guy narrative that dead and defenseless Richard Benda was the source of all ills in the GOED/EB-5 scandal. GOAC essentially rewrote the campaign propaganda that the South Dakota Republican Party sent to tamp down concerns about EB-5 in October.

The report rubber-stamps the audits and reforms discussed last winter, before GOAC received its legislative charge to investigate GOED and EB-5. It accepts without challenge the Swiss-cheese stories told by Rounds and Bollen. The only new work products produced by GOAC itself are two pieces of legislation that would tighten conflict-of-interest restrictions on state employees and make those restrictions last for one year after an employee leaves the state payroll. Even in proposing those modest reforms (the sort of no-duh rules that we should be embarrassed that we don't already have), GOAC focuses solely on Benda's alleged crimes and completely ignores Bollen's conflict-of-interest violations that cost the state millions.

GOAC makes its stonewalling stupidity clearest on page 5 of its report. Making hay of Richard Benda's diversion of $550,000 from Future Fund Grant #1434 (a grant Mike Rounds signed for Northern Beef Packers, with Benda pressing, knowing that Benda was going to be involved with the beef plant when he left Pierre, which facts trouble GOAC not one whit), GOAC mentions that it asked Bollen about how that chunk of the grant got converted into Benda's hefty pay as NBP's EB-5 loan monitor.

When asked about the $550,000 loan monitoring fee collected by Richard Benda from NBP, Mr. Bollen stated that he had no specific knowledge of Richard Benda collecting the loan monitoring fee [GOAC final report, 2014.11.28, p. 5].

This reading of Bollen's comments is incorrect and inconsistent with GOAC's own bogus conclusions. In his arrogant and cynical written response to GOAC after the election (oh, did I mention conveniently delayed?), Bollen said he set up the loan monitor job for Benda [page 9]. Bollen said Benda worked for Bollen's EB-5 management company, SDRC Inc. [Question 15, p. 13]. When GOAC asked Bollen how SDRC Inc. compensated Benda, Bollen said "Mr. Benda was paid pursuant to the terms of a contract for loan monitoring the NBP project, which was required under the loan with NBP. The terms of the contract contain private business information" [Question 8, p. 12]. Bollen's response that he had "no specific knowledge" of "how and why... Benda [was] involved in collecting the loan monitoring fee" [Question 20, p. 14] was at best legalistic if not patently absurd: he created the loan monitor job, hired Benda, and knew the terms of the contract well enough to choose to hide them from GOAC.

Bollen knows exactly how and why Benda collected his hundreds of thousands of dollars. He hid that information, and GOAC went "Ro-de-do-de-do, we don't need to know!"

To top off their obtusity, Tidemann and friends ignore Bollen's dismissal of their whole Benda-as-fall-guy thesis. Bollen cites NBP lawyer Rory King's argument, floated to Bob Mercer a year ago, that the loan-monitoring fees were perfectly legitimate. Senator Tidemann, when you simultaneously cite a source to support your thesis then ignore that source's rebuttal of your thesis, you come out looking like monkeys.

I hate to include the Democrats on this committee, Rep. Susan Wismer and Senator Larry Lucas, in the monkey pile. Rep. Wismer did expose GOAC's stonewalling and bring the EB-5 issue back to life last summer. Senator Lucas brought forth most of the substantive questions about Benda, Bollen, Rounds, and other players in the EB-5 scam, but he also strangely and incorrectly declared Senator Tidemann's conduct of the GOAC hearings "fair and non-partisan." Senator Lucas says he's considering filing a minority report, although why he and Rep. Wismer haven't already written that report and demanded its inclusion on the record is beyond me.

But this shame falls on all ten members of the Government Operations and Audit Committee, on all of a Legislature that accepts Chairman Tidemann's conclusion that "no further action was necessary," and on all of South Dakota, for electing such gutless, incurious, and feckless legislators.

Update 06:15 CST: Senator Lucas tells AP that minority report will happen, along with a call for a special prosecutor and further GOAC investigation. But he also says "it’s our due diligence as state officials to make sure we have covered all our bases in the matter" and that "Right now I’d say we’re about on third base." Third base? I don't know what puritans Larry's been making out with, but in my backseat, GOAC hasn't even gotten to first.

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South Dakota teachers lost a fine advocate in the Legislature with the defeat of District 4 Democrat Rep. Kathy Tyler. One could hope that voters in neighboring District 2 have compensated for that loss by electing 37-year teacher Lana Greenfield to the House. Alas, Greenfield's a Republican, so scratch that hope.

As revealed in a "nice" Aberdeen American News interview, Representative-Elect Greenfield has already internalized the party-line excuses for Legislative inaction and irresponsibility.

Greenfield acknowledges there's a teacher shortage but rejects the obvious rational solution of paying teachers more:

An increase in pay may not be the only thing needed to draw teachers to South Dakota, Greenfield said.

“I just don’t think that’s workable as far as enticing our students into getting into the (teaching) profession,” Greenfield said. “Of course, I want the teachers to have a raise. Of course, I think that they work too hard, and if there are monies, I think that money should be specifically earmarked when it’s sent to the schools for the teachers” [Katherine Grandstrand, "Former Teacher Ready for Legislative Position," Aberdeen American News, 2014.11.30].

"If there are monies"—as if those monies appear out of thin air, independent of the appropriative decisions of legislators.

Offer more money, and you'll get more teaching candidates. The only reason that's not workable is that legislators like Rep.-Elect Greenfield throw up their hands in despair and declare themselves powerless to find the money to make those raises possible.

Greenfield perpetuates the guilt trip that teaching is about love, not money:

But money is rarely the bottom line for teachers, Greenfield said.

“More teachers that I know are worried about the outcomes of their profession rather than their income,” Greenfield said. “I loved teaching and looked forward to it every day. I loved the students and staff. In a small school, you get along as a family” [Grandstrand, 2014.11.30].

Got that, teachers? You don't worry about your income, do you? Selfless service to a family is what you're all about, right? And if you're not, well, what kind of a greedy monster are you?

Of course, Rep.-Elect Greenfield can't keep her own extemporaneous bromides straight. One moment, she says the Legislature is a "business," "not a dog-and-pony show." The next she's making entirely unbusinesslike pronouncements in favor of continued inefficiency:

With a majority of South Dakota’s schools in small towns, keeping those small schools open is important not only for the students, but for the community.

“The school is the center of the society in a small town. There’s so many activities that take place that are school-centered,” Greenfield said. “People go there for Snow Queen contests, PTO carnivals, plays, music concerts; it’s a gathering place.”

The ruralness of the state adds another hurdle in attracting teachers to South Dakota.

“I’m worried because I’m afraid that, with the shortage of teachers across the nation, the last thing I want to see is our small schools having to shut down and give way to larger schools that have more crowded class conditions just for the sake of filling them with a math teacher,” Greenfield said [Grandstrand, 2014.11.30].

Hold on. I understand Greenfield's effort to tell teachers that life is more than money. I appreciate her willingness to argue that keeping small rural schools open should be about more than money. But how is that at all businesslike thinking? And if Greenfield is willing to so regularly overthrow concerns about money in favor of greater issues, why does she not apply the same expectation to taxpayers and legislators? Why does she not march to Pierre and say, "There are more important things than leaving money in the pockets of our wealthiest citizens. We need to spend our money to pay teachers the raises that we all think they deserve for their selfless service. We need to pay more taxes so that every one of those rural schools doesn't just survive but thrives!"

But there I go expecting consistent and conscientious policy formulations from Republican legislators. Silly me. Rep.-Elect Greenfield isn't really formulating policy. She's just marking time until she gets to Pierre, where she will faithfully carry out the orders of a stingy, anti-education GOP leadership, which she will frost with sugary word confections for the voters back home.

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At least he won't go hungry... (Lee Schoenbeck and friends, from Schoenbeck Twitter feed, 2014.11.14)

At least he won't go hungry... (Lee Schoenbeck and friends, from Schoenbeck Twitter feed, 2014.11.14)

Not only did the 2014 election deprive us the pleasure of testing Lee Schoenbeck's commitment to disenfranchising District 3 and RV voters, but the legislative caucus has deprived us the pleasure of Lee Schoenbeck's leadership. Despite months of machinating by Watertown's imminently Rotunda-revisiting Representative-Elect, GOP House members and members-elect picked Rep. Steve Westra of Sioux Falls as their assistant majority leader.

Rep.-Elect Schoenbeck has graced these blog pages for years with numerous intelligent, kind, and/or provocative comments. Rep. Westra has yet to contribute any thoughts to our rollicking civic discussion. One can only conclude that Schoenbeck possesses an intellect far superior to Westra's and that the SDGOP has passed up an opportunity to boost its collective IQ and Blog-Q.

We can only hope Schoenbeck will emerge smiling from this defeat and use the extra time left in his hands by his colleagues to post more blog comments... and maybe call some more Republicans S.O.B.'s who have it coming.

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Sioux Falls restaurateur and known liberal Steve Hildebrand got to serve Governor Dennis Daugaard on Friday. As a tip, the Governor left a signal that if the Legislature wants to kill the minimum-wage increase we voters passed Tuesday, that would be hunky-dory:

So, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard came into my restaurant this morning to meet with a newly elected Republican legislator who frequents the place. After their meeting and before he walked out the door, I asked the governor if he had a minute to talk to me. I asked him to not let Republican legislators repeal the cost-of-living adjustments for the minimum wage increase that the people of South Dakota just passed by a healthy majority.

His response: "I don't believe in the minimum wage. I believe we should let the market set the rates of pay." I said, great. Then people in South Dakota will work for $2.50 an hour.

And then I pointed out to him that Sioux Falls has a 3% unemployment rate, but that 50% of our school-aged kids qualify for free-or-reduced lunches - and that poverty is a REAL problem in our state. I asked him to pay attention to low wages, poverty and to take this very seriously. His aides, were very rude and escorted him quickly out of the restaurant. I was left with only one thought - the governor of my state doesn't care that families are working in poverty level jobs, can't make ends meet. Too bad he can't have a reasonable conversation with a local business owner who knows how hard it is for people to make ends meet when wages are so low.

And what a shame if Republicans attempt to repeal a law passed by the voters. Not that they haven't done it many times. But really, wages for people working in poverty-level jobs. Shame on them [link added; Steven C. Hildebrand, Facebook post, 2014.11.07].

Almost everyone is working, but with only the meager protection of a minimum wage still well below what workers deserve for their productivity, half of the families need help buying lunch for their kids. Governor Daugaard, should the market also determine which kids eat?

Blogger Michael Larson suggested that we should lower the Governor's pay to parity with the Lennox mayor's, $3,200 a year. Let's go one better: let's let the market determine Dennis Daugaard's salary. Remove his legally guaranteed salary of $107,121.62 (plus that really valuable house he gets to live in on our dime, and the nice state cars and planes that haul him and his rude aides around). Let him work, and at the end of each month, we'll conduct a poll to determine just what they think their Governor's labor has been worth. Maybe he'll get $10,000. Maybe he'll get $10, and Mrs. Daugaard will have to go jerk espresso at Pier 347 or substitute-teach.

I suppose we could argue that's how we do state executive salaries right now. We poll the "market"—comprised mostly the Governor's fellow Republicans in the Legislature—and they compose a state budget that locks in pay for the Governor along with all state employees.

But not one of these executives is anywhere near subsistence living at $8.50 an hour. Not one of these executives needs a second income to feed the kids. Not one of these executives faces the reality of a market that would throw them into welfare or bankruptcy in a month if the law didn't protect their basic dignity as workers.

Citizens, take your new legislators to coffee this month. Remind them that you are the market, and you have spoken: workers deserve at least $8.50 an hour, with indexed increases each year. Legislators, don't mess with Initiated Measure 18.

Update 14:04 CST: Todd Epp suggests some might call a Legislative repeal of IM 18 totalitarianism. Indeed, we might.

124 comments

Bob Mercer agrees that the EB-5 scandal is far from over. Next Thursday the Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee meets to discuss what went wrong in then-Governor, now Senator-Elect Mike Rounds's EB-5 visa investment program. GOAC chairman Senator Larry Tidemann (R-7/Brookings) has invited Board of Regents exec Jack Warner to talk about changes in the contract authorization process (which obviously broke down when EB-5 czar Joop Bollen wrote himself an illegal and lucrative private contract while working for the state).

The language Tidemann uses to invite Warner is different from the language he uses to invite Bollen. To Warner, Senator Tidemann says, "The Committee requests that you be present...." To Bollen, Senator Tidemann says, "I would like to request that you respond...." And while Warner, who has done little if anything wrong in the EB-5 mess other than not realizing Bollen was running a scam for himself and his friends from the NSU campus, is called to appear in person, Bollen is permitted leave to write a letter from his comfy home in Aberdeen.

Bollen is also allowed to miss deadlines. Senator Tidemann's September 30 request asked Bollen to reply by November 5 so that committee members would have time to review his response. They'll need that time: the September 30 letter includes 75 questions. Bollen could have written up three a day and still had plenty of time to finish, but GOAC still has no Bollen response on its agenda documents page. A knowledgeable source tells me that Bollen and his lawyer (that's EB-5 player Jeff Sveen) plan to respond on Monday, November 10.

Given Joop Bollen's willingness to lie to federal officials, we should probably not expect much. But we wait with bated breath for 75 repetitions of "I do not recall," "I decline to share confidential business information, " "I plead the Fifth," and maybe, just once, please, Joop, "Go ask Mike Rounds—it was his idea."

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In unspinnable bad news, South Dakota Democrats lost legislators in Pierre. We're up one Senator, but we're down five House members. That brings us to 8 out of 35 Senators and 12 out of 70 Representatives.

In the Senate, Democrats flipped seats in Districts 4, 8, and 18 (to Jim Peterson, Scott Parsley, and Bernie Hunhoff). Unfortunately, all three of those Democrats were House members, and all three saw their old seats fall to Republicans, leaving our bench thinner. Republicans flipped two Senate seats, in Districts 2 and 17 (to Brock Greenfield and Arthur Rusch).

Democrats didn't flip any seats in the House. Republicans flipped both seats in District 4 (to Fred Deutsch and John Wiik) and the single Dems seats in Districts 8, 14, and 18.

At a time when Democrats appear to need some new blood, only two out of the 44 non-incumbent Dems on Legislative ballots are taking seats: Steven D. McCleery in the District 1 House and Shawn Bordeaux in District 26A. Both of those seats were walk-ons; no non-incumbent Democrat who faced a Republican challenger won a Legislative race this year.

Wow. So tell me: is the "R" brand so powerful that even I could win a Legislative race if I just switched my registration back to Republican?

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