District 15 in northern Sioux Falls has three candidates for its two House seats. Two of the candidates are the incumbent Democrats, Patrick Kirschman and Pastor Karen Soli.

Eric Leggett, Independent candidate for District 15 House (he's the one with the whiskers). Photo: Celebrations Photography

Eric Leggett, Independent candidate for District 15 House (he's the one with the whiskers). Photo: Celebrations Photography

So naturally, I go talk to the third, Eric Leggett. The 23-year-old evangelical Christian and University of Sioux Falls history/political science major is running for his first political office on an interesting mix of conservative, Libertarian, and (dare I say?) liberal policies.

Leggett takes the standard conservative stance on health insurance. He opposes expanding Medicaid because he opposes the Affordable Care Act, saying the ACA causes "less competition, higher costs, less choices, and an even poorer quality of care for our poorest citizens." Leggett shares Governor Dennis Daugaard's concern that we might expand Medicaid, then find the federal government bailing on its financial commitment and leaving us holding the bag.

Translating that concern to the 39.6% of our state budget that comes from federal funds, Leggett sounds downright Daugaardian, advocating self-reliance in all state budget areas before the "inevitable" budget reductions from Washington:

...we should be fairly aggressive in gaining independence from federal funds. It's going to hurt, but if we can get away from federal dependence and find solutions for funding ourselves, it will protect us from a much worse budget shock in the future. I don't think we have a choice. Either we reduce the dependence on Washington ourselves, or they do it to us when the inevitable slashes to spending occur. I think we're in line for another economic winter [Eric Leggett, interview, Madville Times, 2014.07.19].

Leggett diverges from Daugaard on the gasoline tax, saying he does not support an increase. Holding a more conservative line, Leggett doesn't advocate alternative funding mechanisms for fixing our roads and bridges; he says "we're just going to have to make do."

Leggett gives off Libertarian vapors when he says the real problem for wage-earners is not raising the minimum wage (see below!) but reining in the Federal Reserve Bank and its inflationary policy of "using fuzzy math to excuse the continuance of quantitative easing." Griping about the Fed is a favorite Libertarian pastime. Leggett at least has the sense to acknowledge that legislators "have little impact on our monetary policy" and brings up the Fed simply "because it's something to [be] aware of."

Leggett also shares the Libertarian desire to decriminalize marijuana. Leggett says we waste resources incarcerating weed smokers. Throw drug users in jail of they are driving and putting people at risk; otherwise, if we can't wholly legalize, just ticket drug users. Leggett also wants to change South Dakota's policy approach to addiction:

We have a big problem with drug addiction, especially meth. Governor Janklow clamped down hard on drug use. Yet, the problem didn't get better. It got worse. Other states and countries have started treating addiction as a health issue. I think we should follow suit [Leggett, 2014.07.19].

Leggett advocates the veterans court model, a topic which was his first research assignment as an intern for the Legislature during the 2014 session, to deal with addiction issues.

But when Leggett realizes those Libertarian savings in corrections, he wants to go what we might call liberal and use those savings to raise teacher pay. Leggett did home school until high school, but, unlike the Reps. Haggar down the street, home school didn't turn him against the K-12 system:

I look forward to working with our schools and finding a way to raise our teacher's salaries. Education is an investment, and should be viewed that way. While there is truth to the arguments about our cost of living, dead last is not a place we want to be when we are talking about compensating some of the most important people in our society [Leggett, 2014.07.18].

Yet on the liberal side, Leggett supports Initiated Measure 18, the proposed increase and inflation-indexing of South Dakota's minimum wage. Leggett pulls out his USF economics minor and says the impact of higher pay at the low end will have "negligible" effect on unemployment in South Dakota.

Perhaps even more liberally, Leggett wants to abolish the sales tax on food. Reps. Kirschman and Soli have supported the reduction or repeal of the food sales tax in a variety of bills (2014 HB 1149; 2013 HB 1154; 2012 HB 1214). Leggett takes the liberal moral position that we shouldn't fund government on the backs of poor folks buying groceries. But Leggett also takes a the practical economic position that repealing the food tax would boost the economy by drawing shoppers from Minnesota and Iowa.

Ideological labels get messier when Leggett turns to the hot-button issues like the death penalty. Legislative intern Leggett was in the committee room when Rep. Rev. Steve Hickey presented his bill to repeal the death penalty last winter. Leggett says it was a very intense and emotional hearing. Leggett sides with Rep. Hickey, saying he "shudder[s] to think of how many completely innocent people we may have killed in the name of justice." He points to Texas's high rate of executions and high rate of crime as an example of the failure of the death penalty to make society safer. And he says fiscal arguments can't support the death penalty: even if the data showing that executions cost more than life sentences are wrong, killing prisoners to save money is immoral.

Leggett sounds a bit more clearly Christianly conservative on abortion and other women's health issues, but not quite. Leggett says he supports South Dakota's current abortion restrictions. He says other medical procedures require counseling and waiting periods, so making women seek counseling during a 72-hour or longer waiting period is acceptable. He says that as a legislator he will stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves, which is standard evangelical political talk for putting the rights of fetuses above the rights of women (but I told Eric I'd keep my editorializing to a minimum).

Yet Leggett, who was adopted at age 2 after being born by a 13-year-old mother, tells his fellow Christians that they could do more real good by finding ways to support young pregnant women rather than waving signs in front of clinics. He will legislate to limit abortion, but beyond the Legislature's reach, he sees the need for social change, for men to hold themselves accountable and not bail on the women they impregnate.

Leggett also says contraception should be none of the government's business. He doesn't view the Hobby Lobby decision as cause for celebration.  He says Hobby Lobby's contention that certain forms of contraception are abortion is scientifically wrong. But Leggett accepts conservative Justice Alito's assertion that the state must yield to religious believers' alternative science, no matter how demonstrably wrong that science may be.

That said, Leggett says Hobby Lobby could have avoided all this litigation in the first place by decoupling employers and health insurance. Just let companies pay their employees more and let employees buy their own insurance on the individual market.

Leggett's diverse positions support his desire to avoid political labels. While he interned for Republican Reps. Steve Westra and Kristin Conzet last winter, and while he is speaking at the Libertarian convention in August, Leggett does not want to carry either party's label. He  has been a registered Independent throughout his brief voting eligibilty. Leggett sees increasing voter interest in an alternative to the two-party dominance that they see creating gridlocking the federal government. He wants to be part of that alternative.

Absent partisan gridlock in one-party Pierre, I tried to get Leggett to clarify what alternatives he can offer that District 15 cannot get from their Democratic incumbents. But Leggett wouldn't bite. He said he won't spend his campaign talking down other people. Instead, he's more interested in finding common ground with voters on Democratic turf (like repealing the sales tax on food), then pitching his own merits and letting the voters decide. He does plan to include his youth and lack of political polish among the reasons he'd be good in Pierre. The "fresh face!" swing worked as well as a rubber golf club in South Dakota's U.S. Senate and Legislative primaries; we'll see if it comes any closer to the hole in District 15 in the general election.

30 comments
Jeff Nelson, Democratic candidate for District 8 House

Jeff Nelson, Democratic candidate for District 8 House

District 8 Democrats are back to a full slate of candidates for Legislature. Jeff Nelson filed papers last week to run for District 8 House in place of David Skoglund, the Democratic placeholder who withdrew back in April after Moorhead cops busted him in a sex sting. Nelson's press release does not mention Skoglund by name. It does mention a whole bunch of reasons that Nelson brings some serious campaign-trail power to the Democratic ticket:

  • 24 years as East River Electric GM, meaning Nelson knows utility policy and he knows people;
  • freshly retired, meaning Nelson can give the campaign and the Legislature full-time attention;
  • community service with Inter-Lakes Community Action, the Lake County Food Pantry, LifeScape (the recently merged Children's Care Hospital and School and SD Achieve), and the Mitchell Technical Institute Foundation, meaning Nelson can talk poverty relief, children's health and rehab, and funding for vocational ed;
  • work with the ethanol and wind energy industries, meaning he can campaign knowledgeably on a panoply of energy issues;
  • his wife Trudi, a whip-smart force of nature and former MHS debate coach who will keep Jeff firmly reminded of the need to kick some sense into the Legislature on K-12 funding.

Jeff Nelson joins Democratic House candidate Patrick G. Heinemann and Democratic Senate aspirant (and current state representative and East River wingman) Scott Parsley in the battle to turn District 8 full blue. Nelson faces incumbent Rep. Leslie Heinemann and new GOP challenger Mathew Wollmann.

Below is Nelson's full campaign announcement, issued after lunch today:

Jeff Nelson enters race for South Dakota House

WENTWORTH — Jeff Nelson of rural Madison has announced his candidacy for the South Dakota House of Representatives from District 8 which includes Lake, Moody, Miner and Sanborn counties. Nelson, a Democrat, was nominated by local party leaders to replace a candidate who withdrew from the race.

“With the encouragement of many friends and community members, I’m pleased to announce my candidacy to represent the people of District 8 in Pierre,” Nelson said. “I’m honored to have the confidence of local party leaders and plan to run a positive campaign focused on issues that are important to the people of District 8. I intend to bring experienced leadership and common-sense ideas to the state Capitol that will make a difference in people’s lives.”

A lifelong South Dakotan, Nelson has lived in the Madison area for the past four decades. He worked for East River Electric Power Cooperative for 39 years, 24 as the organization’s general manager, before retiring this past February.
“I’m looking forward to this new challenge.” Nelson said. “During the campaign I intend to lead a conversation focused on strengthening the investment in education, supporting broadened economic opportunity with special emphasis on workforce development and increased pay, and working to extend access to medical care.”

Nelson is active in community activities. Currently he serves on the Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership (ICAP) board of directors and is President of the Lake County Food Pantry. Nelson is also an officer on the statewide foundation board of directors for LifeScape (previously Children’s Care Hospital & School and SD Achieve) and serves on the board of the Mitchell Technical Institute Foundation.

Nelson has been involved in state and national legislative policy for decades. In his professional career he testified before Congress on public power issues and has worked closely with state legislators and government agency officials on many legislative issues. Nelson is credited with helping the ethanol industry gain a foothold in South Dakota by creating a mechanism that allowed electric cooperative members to use co-op patronage as collateral to invest in the state’s first ethanol plants. He was instrumental in creating the Value-Added Agriculture Development Center and the SD Wind Energy Association. He also served on a number of regional and national boards as part of his role with East River Electric.

A military veteran, Nelson served in the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division after graduating from South Dakota State University with an electrical engineering degree. Nelson’s wife, Trudi, is a retired teacher who taught and coached debate in the Madison Central School District for 15 years. The Nelson’s have two grown children and three grandchildren [Jeff Nelson, campaign press release, 2014.07.14].

4 comments

Unlike Annette Bosworth, Denny Davis really is motivated by his Christian faith to take political action. The Catholic deacon directs South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Davis's group supported the bill Rep. Steve Hickey (R-9/Sioux Falls) brought to the Legislature this year to end South Dakota's use of capital punishment. In an e-mail to supporters, Davis says we can expect SDADP to bring a similar bill to Pierre next year, and he wants help letting candidates know that's coming:

We continue to work for the repeal of the death penalty in South Dakota and as always we do this together. I write to you to ask two things to bring us to the 2015 Legislative Session in Pierre.

The first is to ask all of you to be talking to the candidates for the State House and Senate seats about their stand on the death penalty. The primaries are over and the candidates need to know that we will bring a repeal bill next Jan. This is vital to getting the word out in the hearts and minds of the candidates. Talk to them, write to them, call them; somehow make contact. Actively pursue them even if you have a group who wants to go to their door and ask questions. Remember to always respect their view even if it doesn’t agree with yours. Just tell them where you are at and where you will vote in Nov. If they know there are many who oppose the death penalty, it will give them time to think about the issue and whether it is right for South Dakota [Denny Davis, South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, e-mail, 2014.06.24].

That's certainly a conversation worth having with your Legislative candidates.

Davis says he's traveling next week to Washington, D.C., for further political action against the death penalty. But instead of wining and dining donors, he'll spend four days fasting with friends in front of the Supreme Court as part of the Abolitionist Action Committee's 21st annual Starvin' for Justice Fast and Vigil.

 

5 comments

Rep. Susan Wismer got the Government Operations and Audit Committee to add the GOED/EB-5/SDRC scandal to its agenda at the last minute last week. The conversation centered around whether the committee should subpoena Joop Bollen, the head of SDRC Inc., the private firm that Bollen spun off from the public agency he ran for the state to manage EB-5 visa investments in South Dakota.

GOAC Chairman Senator Larry Tidemann (R-7/Brookings) is trying to find out whether Bollen is worth subpoenaing:

Tidemann, R-Brookings, said he met Tuesday with state Attorney General Marty Jackley.

Tidemann said he has asked Jackley to present a subpoena template to the Legislature’s committee on government operations and audit.

That could happen at the committee’s next meeting July 29.

...Tidemann said the goal of a briefing by Jackley will be to explain to the committee whether Bollen would provide any useful testimony if a subpoena is issued [Bob Mercer, "Legislative Inquiry on EB-5 Might Seek Subpoena," Rapid City Journal, 2014.06.21].

Joop Bollen in China, April 2009. Downloaded from Facebook 2014.06.23

Joop Bollen in China, April 2009. Downloaded from Facebook 2014.06.23

That Senator Tidemann would turn to Attorney General Jackley to tell the committee whether Bollen has any information worth hearing indicates some two key assumptions:

  1. AG Jackley has information from and about Bollen that he hasn't shared with the rest of us.
  2. AG Jackley has asked Bollen all the relevant questions and looked for all the relevant documents that would help the public understand what he and Richard Benda were up to as they tried to get EB-5 dollars for huge projects like Northern Beef Packers, the Hyperion refinery, and the Keystone XL pipeline.

#1 is quite possible. #2 seems far less likely. AG Jackley has demonstrated his less-than-keen interest in investigating Bollen's management of the EB-5 program, claiming that he has no business inquiring about a fundamentally federal program.

Chairman Tidemann and the Legislature should not feel bound by the Attorney General's lack of curiosity. Bollen was the central figure in the GOED/EB-5/SDRC scandal. If anyone can tell us what happened, he can. Even if he would appear under protest and plead the Fifth to every question Chairman Tidemann, Rep. Wismer, and the other members might pose, Bollen needs to get the message that he worked for the state and that he must answer to the state. GOAC and the public have a right to look Bollen in the eye, ask "What the heck were you and Benda doing?" and hear his response, for the record.

Don't wait for the translation, Larry: issue the subpoena.

16 comments

Bob Mercer brings us a surprise from Pierre: the Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee decided to talk about the GOED/EB-5/Benda scandal after all. The agenda GOAC issued last week made no mention of the Governor's Office of Economic Development or the EB-5 program, which the Legislature charged GOAC to investigate last winter. Mercer thus went off to cover the state Railroad Board meeting.

With the press away, someone somehow added EB-5 to the GOAC agenda. Rep. Susan Wismer tweeted that the committee decided to defer to the U.S. Attorney rather than issue subpoenas to get its own answers about SDRC Inc., the shady private for-profit corporation to which the state ceded its authority over EB-5 in 2009.

Mercer expresses clear disgruntlement at GOAC's failure to alert the public to this discussion:

Had news organizations received some advance notice that there would be an attempt to seek the subpoena, the matter likely would have been covered by a news reporter. I haven’t seen any indication yet this afternoon that a reporter was present or at least listening via the Internet live-stream from the meeting. I’ll see what more I can find either later today or Thursday.

There are several patterns developing on this matter in the committee that deserve a deeper, closer look [Bob Mercer, "Some Days There Aren't Reporters," Pure Pierre Politics, 2014.06.18].

Mercer does learn from GOAC chair Senator Larry Tidemann (R-7/Brookings) that Tidemann plans to speak with the attorney general about GOAC's subpoena power and have GOAC follow up on both the Governor's Office of Economic Development and the Governor's Future Fund. But hey, we were promised GOAC action on GOED and EB-5 back in February, and it still hasn't happened. We'll believe it when we see it.

6 comments

2014 Senate Smarter than House?

The Legislative Research Council provides the 2014 Statistical Comparison, which tells us how our Legislature performed in passing bills compared to past performance. The following chart shows the number of bills floated and enacted in the Legislature last winter, along with how this year's bill tally compares with last year's, with the historical average, and with the historical highs and lows.

Bill Tally Legislature Senate House Enacted
2014 449 188 261 248
2013 492 242 250 260
% annual change -8.7% -22.3% 4.4% -4.6%
average 513 252 328 321
% off average -12.5% -25.4% -20.4% -22.7%
hi 929 (1957) 405 (1913) 576 (1957) 505 (1957)
lo 432 (1964) 187 (2002) 212 (1905) 104 (1897)

We pass more bills than we kill: the 2014 Legislature enacted 55.2% of the bills in its hopper, just a snudge under the historical average of 55.4%.

Now passing more bills than we kill doesn't mean South Dakota legislators are a bunch of radical activist policy addicts. It could be that our filters are set higher to start with: maybe legislators generally don't put up bills without greater confidence that it's worth rousing the slumbering state to action.

Whatever the filtering process that goes on before bills are introduced, once they hit the hopper, the House more avidly kills off its own proposals than the Senate. The following chart shows where bills from each chamber get killed:

Bill fate House Senate
failed own cmte 93 35.6% 36 19.1%
failed own floor 15 5.7% 11 5.9%
failed opp cmte 12 4.6% 8 4.3%
failed opp floor 7 2.7% 8 4.3%
withdrawn 2 0.8% 8 4.3%
vetoed 0 0.0% 1 0.5%
enacted 132 50.6% 116 61.7%

The 2014 House killed over a third of its own bills on their first hearing, in House committee. The 2014 Senate shot down fewer than 20% of its own bills in its committee. Both chambers had similar floor-kill rates for their own bills. Add chamber and floor killings, and the House rejected 41.3% of its members' proposals, while the Senate rejected only 25.0% of its members proposals. Overall, Senate bills this year had a 61.7% chance of passing, while House bills had a 50.6% chance of passing.

Now you might look at that data and think Senators are either smarter, pushier, or luckier than Representatives and lean toward taking your favorite legislative ideas to your Senator for a better chance of passage. But the difference in pass rates between the 2014 House and Senate are anomalous: since 1890, the House has had a tiny edge (within a percentage point) in getting its bills passed.

 

4 comments

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Susan Wismer notes that the GOP leadership of the South Dakota Legislature continues to run and hide from its duty to investigate the GOED/EB-5/Benda scandal. She tells the Rapid City Journal that the newly released agenda for the Government Audit and Operations Committee makes no mention of EB-5 program.

I check that document online, and, sure enough, the June 18 GOAC agenda ignores the topic. GOAC will discuss Game Fish and Parks' big horn sheep auction, the Department of Education's performance measures, and four other items, but, as it did in May, GOAC will spend no time conducting the EB-5 discussions that GOAC chairman Senator Corey Brown gave us his word would happen. The Legislature wrote Brown's word into House Concurrent Resolution 1010 to defuse pressure from other lawmakers for more substantive action on the scandal. But after dipping its toe into the issue in its March 7 meeting, GOAC has conducted no further inquiry.

I'm curious: is there any procedure by which a Legislative committee can be held in contempt of the Legislature's own resolutions? Or are the Legislature's resolutions indeed meaningless, even when those resolutions apply to the Legislature itself?

24 comments

One of the biggest reasons to be all grumbly and gloomy at the primary after-party is that Senator Phil Jensen (probably) won the District 33 Republican primary. Jensen, who proposes legislation to protect us from gays and Muslims but says the free market is all we need to protect us from the Ku Klux Klan, beat challenger David Johnson by 30 votes, 50.62% to 49.38%. That any district in South Dakota could give a majority vote to a man who says such absurd and hurtful things and advocates such absurd and hurtful legislation is an embarrassment to our whole state.

But I reject the gloomy grumbles by citing hope from Jensen's own district. District 33's Democrats and Independents had a primary choice for Senator as well. They could elect Democrat Haven Stuck, a Rapid City lawyer with decades of community involvement in the Chamber of Commerce, the Central States Fair, the South Dakota Investment Council, and other reputable activities. Or they could elect Democrat Robin Page, a single mom raising multi-ethnic foster kids in low-income North Rapid.

Robin Page, Democratic candidate for District 33 Senate

Robin Page, Democratic candidate for District 33 Senate

District 33 Dems elected Robin Page. As loyal reader Deb Geelsdottir would say, they elected the passionate poet over the lukewarm moderate. They elected an Indian woman, the best candidate on the ballot to look Phil Jensen in the eye and demand an apology for years of racism and sexism in his politics. They elected an underdog who built on what she learned in her unsuccessful 2012 bid for District 33 House, printed and mailed hundreds of letters from her kitchen table, and outcampaigned a wealthier, better-connected candidate.

District 33 elected exactly the kind of of candidate I want Democrats to elect.

Now my endorsement may be the kiss of death. But I am thrilled that Robin Page won and that she will now carry the important responsibility of holding Senator Phil Jensen accountable and convincing her neighbors to cleanse the Legislature of his bad politics.

And how is Page starting her general election campaign? By talking to her neighbors... all of her neighbors:

Good morning FB friends and family! It is official, in a very close race yesterday, I have won the Democratic Primary, in District 33, with 54% of the vote! I send my best wishes to my opponent, Haven Stuck. I am sure that this race will be talked about in Democratic circles for a long time.

It is my sincere hope that the residents of District 33, Democrat, Republican, Independents and all others, will come together and work for a strong community where hatred, racism and discrimination is not tolerated!

I put forth my honest belief that if we come together in open discussions, we can find the balance and common ground that will best serve all of our citizens.

I look forward to sponsoring several "Meet the Candidate - Listening Sessions" over the next few months. I invite ALL citizens to attend so that we can have these important discussions and together, move our community, state and nation forward!

I do these things "So the People can live"! Thank You!!! [Robin Page, Facebook post, 2014.06.04]

Robin Page for District 33 Senate—go get 'em, tiger!

59 comments

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