Here's one sign that Democrat Robin Page may beat Phil Jensen out of his District 33 Senate seat:

Campaign signs, one block west of Pennington County GOP HQ, West Main St., Rapid City, SD, 2014.10.22.

Campaign signs, one block west of Pennington County GOP HQ, West Main St., Rapid City, SD, 2014.10.22.

This photo comes from one block west of Pennington County Republican headquarters on West Main Street in Rapid City. We see the expected Republican signs for Daugaard, Rounds, Krebs, and Gosch. But we see no sign from the GOP incumbent Senator Jensen. Representing District 33 is Democratic challenger Page.

Remember that Senator Jensen drew disdain from his own party last spring for his hangup on social issues and his awkward commenters on racism. Senator Jensen only narrowly survived a primary challenge. Page is now working hard with direct mail and door-knocking to put Jensen out of a part-time job.

This vacant green hosts a couple other non-Republicans amidst the usual conservative suspects. District 34's GOP Rep. Dan Dryden has his sign up, but instead of fellow Republican Jeff Partridge, we find Democratic candidate Steve Stenson advertised. And from District 35, we get the strange mix of Tea-flavored spokesmodel Lynne Hix-DiSanto and Democrat Dave Freytag, with no visible sign from incumbent GOP Rep. Blaine "Chip" Campbell.

One would think every Republican in the neighborhood would want to get his or her name up next to the party leaders on that street and crowd out those pesky Democratic interlopers. But it could be that the Republican sign-minders down the street are sending a message to Jensen in tolerating Page's challenge.

13 comments

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!

4 comments

Among other things I discovered on my visit to Brookings this weekend was this letter to the editor in the September 27, 2014, Brookings Register, in which Rep. Mark Mickelson (R-13/Sioux Falls) and Sen. Larry Lucas (D-26/Pickstown) praise Senator Larry Tidemann (R-7/Brookings) for his "fair and non-partisan" chairmanship of the Government Operations and Audit Committee:

Letter to the editor, Brookings Register, 2014.09.27

Letter to the editor, Brookings Register, 2014.09.27

Contrary to recent Democrat [sic]* Party advertisements, Senator Tiedemann [sic]* has chaired the GOAC committee [sic]* in a fair and non-partisan manner and he should be commended for doing so [Rep. Mark Mickelson and Sen. Larry Lucas, letter to the editor, Brookings Register, 2014.09.27].

Rep. Mickelson and Sen. Lucas challenge an ad placed in the Brookings paper by the South Dakota Democratic Party criticizing Sen. Tidemann for refusing to subpoena EB-5 czar Joop Bollen and encouraging Brookings voters to ask their senator to work harder to get answers about the growing and costly EB-5 scandal.

Senator Lucas's participation in this letter provokes head-scratching. Senator Lucas submitted an important document and hefty folder of evidence to GOAC at its September 24 hearing laying out the known details of the EB-5 scheme and a number of questions that Chairman Lucas's refusal to subpoena Joop Bollen has left unanswered. Senator Tidemann's only defenses for his refusal have been the silly assertion that he's trying to avoid a media circus and the false assertion that Bollen's promised written answers will be as good as in-person testimony. (The Aberdeen American News says Mike Rounds's mulligan request shows that in-person testimony beats written answers.)

Yet Senator Lucas says the very stonewalling that his September 24 document tries ot overcome shows "fair and non-partisan" leadership.

I have no explanation for Senator Lucas's positioning here. Perhaps guys named Larry just have to stick together. But I am very curious to hear your explanations.

*Sic 'em, Fido!

  1. "Democrat Party" is an incorrect name for the Democratic Party, usually a pejorative shortening used by Republicans.
  2. The Senator spells his name Tidemann. The Democratic Party spelled it correctly in their ad.
  3. GOAC stands for Government Operations and Audit Committee. "GOAC committee" is redundant.
39 comments

Mike Rounds, are you really this bad of a candidate?

Rounds... said in written statements to the Government Operations and Audit Committee last week that “the governor’s office was not served” with lawsuit papers regarding the state’s handling of the EB-5 program.... Rounds, a Republican, was governor at the time of some of the program’s mismanagement.

But Rounds on Thursday sent a letter to the head of the committee asking for permission to change his original response hours after the Rapid City Journal posted on its website a summons showing that Rounds’ office was served with papers pertaining to the lawsuit in July 2009 [links mine; "Rounds Says Wrong Information Sent to Panel Investigating EB-5," AP via Aberdeen American News, 2014.10.03].

Are you kidding me? You have the longest-running, best-funded statewide campaign in South Dakota, you get caught in a lie, and you whimper, "Can I change my answer?"

Rounds is running an Annette Bosworth campaign. He seems to be running on charisma, thinking he can just turn on the charm and make everyone think he's sliced bread. He's not used to people asking him questions, let alone having to answer questions honestly and in detail.

When Rounds received the committee's questions last month, he could have racked his memory and looked up the facts. Rounds could have called Nila Novotny—she still works for the Governor's office—and asked her to check the records. Rounds could have had his lawyer and a couple campaign researchers review his GOAC answers for accuracy. Rounds could have done his homework, gotten his facts straight, and given GOAC the accurate answers they deserve.

Instead, Rounds ignored basic fact-checking and focused all of his energy on writing lengthy political snark into his answers. Rounds wrote as if the inquiry were just another campaign event and not a serious request from a Legislative committee for simple, factual responses. Rounds wrote as if he could just say whatever popped into his head because he's a wonderful guy and no one would dare contradict him.

And now Rounds has to contradict himself. Mike, what kind of a campaign team do you have that lets you get into situations like this?

28 comments

If I were looking only at the Internet, I would assume that Senator Phil Jensen isn't really trying to stop Robin Page from taking his District 33 Senate seat.

But Phil does look good in that mustache... (photo from Jensen for Senate website)

But Phil does look good in that mustache... (photo from Jensen for Senate website)

Consider Jensen's campaign website: he doesn't to appear to have updated any content on the page since 2012. He certainly doesn't mention his marquee legislation from 2014, his absurd and embarrassing attack on LGBT civil rights. He certainly doesn't talk about his laughing acceptance of his hypocrisy on drug-testing and his GOP-rejected tolerance of the Ku Klux Klan. (Interestingly, Jensen's Tea-soaked "Interesting Links" page disses the SDGOP by offering a link labeled "South Dakota Republican Party" that actually takes clickers to the website of an anonymous splinter group that starkly criticizes the main party.)

Consider Jensen's campaign Facebook page: since his primary victory on June 3, Team Jensen has posted one announcement, an August 15 call for volunteers to bring "unicycles... goats, chickens..." to the Central States Fair parade.

"We deserve better," says this Robin Page supporter. Photo from Page for 33 Facebook page.

"We deserve better," says this Robin Page supporter. Photo from Robin Page for District 33 Senate Facebook page.

Meanwhile, Robin Page's Facebook page is bubbling with updates and photos of the Democratic candidate working crowds, chatting up her party leaders and fellow candidates, having fun, and rallying her supporters to action. Page also points out that while she's out stumping, Jensen is hiding. She says Jensen declined an interview with the Rapid City Journal and skipped a forum with important civic groups like the local Chamber and Home Builders Association.

As noted by Seth Tupper, Page is running as the anti-Jensen, not just on issues, but on campaign style. Page is using Jensen's own lackluster campaign funding as proof of his declining support. In a campaign graphic, Page shows that Jensen's campaign fundraising has steadily declined over the last four elections as his radical positions have become better known. This graphic claims that, after raising over $18,000 to get into the State House in 2008, Jensen this year hasn't been able to raise more than $3,000:

Image from Robin Page for District 33 Facebook page

Image from Robin Page for District 33 Facebook page

We won't have campaign finance reports to verify Jensen's poverty or compare Page's campaign cash until later this month. But if Jensen continues to keep such a low profile, it wouldn't be surprising if Page surpasses him in cash and votes.

80 comments

Hey, Burt Elliott! Pat Hale! You're paying attention to this letter to the editor in the Aberdeen paper, right?

Ed Fischbach of Mellette notes that Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) was all about open records when the James River Water Development District stonewalled him. Fischbach thus finds it puzzling that Novstrup, who is now running for District 3 House, isn't fighting to open records in the EB-5 scandal:

Now there is an EB-5 scandal that is bigger than life in his own legislative district, and we don't hear a peep out of him. The EB-5 scandal has no-bid contracts, no open records, no accountability, pending lawsuits against the state involving upwards of $147 million, and he says nothing. The handling of EB-5 money in this state has everything that Sen. Novstrup complained about when he went after James River Water District and more, but this open government and open records legislator is now silent.

You won an award, Sen. Novstrup, so start demanding records and accountability from Mike Rounds, Dennis Daugaard and other state officials just like you did from James River Water District. Or, return your award [Ed Fischbach, letter to the editor, Abderdeen American News, 2014.09.21

Senator Novstrup hasn't been entirely silent on the EB-5 scandal. Last December, he agreed with the need to look into affairs in the Governor's Office of Economic Development, but he didn't sound terribly eager to do so, or to expand the scope of any investigation to look into local EB-5 failure Northern Beef Packers:

...[T]o Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, seeking a special session less than three weeks before the start of the regular session seems like a waste of money. If it’s needed, extra digging can be called for once the session begins in January.

One thing the state doesn’t have the authority to do is scour the finances of Northern Beef. It’s a private company, and even if there were fraud, the Legislature wouldn’t have that power, he said.

With EB-5 being a federal program, it seems appropriate that Johnson, a federal prosecutor, is looking into what happened, Al Novstrup said. But, he said, the Legislature can take a look at whether the state’s contract with the SDRC to do EB-5 work was properly followed. If it wasn’t, there might be penalties the state can impose, he said [Scott Waltman, "More Answers Wanted: Area Lawmakers Call for More Investigation of State Economic Development Efforts," Aberdeen American News, 2013.12.15].

Open-records crusader Novstrup certainly isn't among those calling now for Novstrup's neighbor Joop Bollen to testify under oath about his questionable profiteering as the state employee in charge of EB-5 from 2004 to 2009.

Elliott, Hale, Tornberg, Nelson, Page, Nordstrom, this is how you tune the EB-5 scandal to your local legislative races. Ask your Republican incumbents why they aren't fighting for more answers about a scandal that may have cost this state more than Mike Rounds's structural deficit. Ask your Republican incumbents why they aren't asking who knew what was happening in the Governor's Office of Economic Development and when they knew it. Don't let them hide behind their reheated stammerings of "But EB-5 is federal!" Legislators' willingness to investigate or ignore the apparent corruption in our state's economic development program raises a fundamental question of character that every candidate should answer this fall.

5 comments

I can hear the conversation in Pierre: We're short on teachers, and folks going to expect better pay... quick! Blow smoke!

South Dakota’s superintendents say schools are struggling to fill open positions mainly because of low teacher pay, while policymakers suggest a solution to the teacher shortage isn’t simple and the problem won’t be fixed with funding alone [Kevin Burbach, "Lawmakers Say Education Needs More Than Just Money," AP via that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.09.21].

Actually... yeah, it will. Raising teacher pay would do more to solve South Dakota's worsening teacher shortage than any other single policy action. $10,000 more in every teacher's paycheck would change more teachers' minds about moving or retiring or taking up welding than improving teacher training and "support," the ideas Rep. Jacqueline Sly (R-33/Rapid City) mentions in Burbach's report. (At least Burbach gets Rep. Sly's name right; he calls Democratic Rep. Paula Hawks "Tessa".)

At the bottom of the article, spokesman Tony Venhuizen reminds us what the Daugaard Administration really thinks of the teacher shortage—they'd like to make it permanent:

“Particularly in some small districts we see they’re making decisions to keep larger staffs, to keep their staffing levels higher rather than to use the money to pay fewer teachers more [Tony Venhuizen, quoted in Burbach, 2014.09.21].

That's right, far from a shortage of teachers, Governor Daugaard still thinks we have too many teachers. Getting rid of a third of our teachers would deprive our kids of even more resources and support in school, but hey! those darn teachers lean union and Democrat anyway! Who needs 'em?

There are plenty of other, more positive legislative actions we can take to improve our K-12 schools. So let's not dilly-dally: let's raise teacher pay so we can get on to those other improvements.

61 comments

In the brush-off to the Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee that he pens for former state employee and EB-5 profiteer Joop Bollen, lawyer Jeffrey T. Sveen makes this claim about Bollen's EB-5 management company:

SDRC, Inc. has previously provided information to government authorities when requested to do so. As the Committee is aware, an audit by the State of South Dakota has shown that all funds administered by SDRC, Inc., were properly applied [Jeffrey T. Sveen, letter to Senator Larry Tidemann, 2014.09.08].

Really? Let's review what that state audit from February 12, 2014, said about SDRC Inc.:

Finding No. 2003-001:

The former Department of Tourism and State Development (DTSD) and the current Governor’s Office of Economic Development’s (GOED) policies and procedures were inadequate for the monitoring of the contract with the SDRC Inc.

  • ...Although the SDRC was providing to the DTSD a monthly e-mail containing a report and the balances in the two funds, the report was not sufficient to ascertain that the correct amounts were being collected and deposited and copies of bank statements did not accompany the e-mail to corroborate the balances being reported.
  • Documentation was not adequate to determine whether the DTSD or the GOED was receiving the books, records and reports that were required to be provided to the CIS by the SDRC.
  • Inadequate internal controls existed over the payment of expenses from the Expense Fund. Five disbursements were made from the Expense Fund totaling $67,259.97. The invoices were signed by the former Secretary of the DTSD and the DSTD’s Administration Director. The invoices identified the expenses as being for meals, lodging and transportation. Other than the information contained in the invoices, there was no supporting documentation retained to evidence that the expenses were incurred, who incurred the expenses, or the purpose of the expenses.
  • The DTSD and GOED did not report Indemnification Fund One and the Expense Fund in the State’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports for FY2010 through FY2012.

As a result, there existed a potential for the loss of assets and two funds were not properly reported in the State’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report [Department of Legislative Audit, "Governmental Funds of the South Dakota Governor's Office of Economic Development: Audit Report," 2014.02.12].

As I noted in my February analysis of the audit, "loss of assets" is a brilliant euphemism for theft.

Auditor General Martin L. Guindon also emphasized in his report the audit transmittal letter that his office only reviewed only the expense and indemnification funds SDRC Inc. managed for the state, not the entirety of money managed by SDRC Inc.

Sveen and Bollen's claim is thus false. The state audit did not show that "all funds administered by SDRC, Inc., were properly applied." The audit showed that Bollen told the state that its portion of SDRC Inc's business was being handled properly, but he did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that claim.

And in arrogantly rejecting Senator Larry Tidemann's invitation-not-subpoena to testify before the Government Operations and Audit Committee, Bollen is again refusing to provide that evidence and doing so by telling us... something less than the truth.

Chairman Tidemann, are you ready to issue that subpoena yet?

14 comments

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