Remember how McGovern Middle School on the northwest edge of Sioux Falls had to ban kids from walking to school because of bad urban planning?

Turn with me to Lakewood, Ohio, a 52,000-strong suburb of Cleveland that embraces sensible, community-building urban planning:

As Lakewood grew, the city opted against setting up a school bus system, focusing instead on building schools to fit within the community. Most of the schools are multistory buildings on relatively small lots, making them easier to incorporate into residential neighborhoods. As the facilities aged over the years, officials chose to restore and upgrade the existing structures, rather than build sprawling new single-story campuses [Daniel Luzer, "The Town Where Everyone Still Walks to School," Governing, November 2014].

The result? Lakewood's schools offer no bus service, and nearly everyone can walk to school.  Kids get more exercise hauling themselves to school, and the schools save money:

...[T]he Lakewood school district spends about $500,000 a year on transportation, about $1 million less than comparable school districts, according to schools treasurer Kent Zeman. That’s money it can use for other things, including the slightly higher costs of maintaining those smaller, neighborhood-oriented schools. As Zeman puts it, “If you’re going to spend extra money, I’d rather it be on a teacher than a bus” [Luzer, Nov. 2014].

Rural South Dakota schools can't get rid of buses completely. But when we save a little money by abandoning neighborhood schools and building big flat buildings out at the edge of town, we shift costs to kids and families who can no longer walk to school, and we impose ongoing costs on taxpayers by requiring bus service for in-town kids who used to be able to hoof it.

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There is something perverse about capitalism and the global economy when a shipping company suspends cargo runs from Minneapolis at the height of harvest. We have food, something human being needs every day, and big business would rather haul coal and oil across the Pacific. The capitalist system shows further malfunction in failing to pay those who grow food enough to make shipping their product to eaters pay off.

Senator-Elect Mike Rounds and his facilitators think the solution is more more more! Pump and pipe more oil instead of challenging the root problem, an addiction to fossil fuels.

In my reading on the grain-rail-oil problem, I notice that Northwest grain farmers are having an easier time getting their product to market because barges can haul their grain down the Columbia. That gets me thinking: why don't we alleviate the shipping shortage by returning to barge shipments on the Missouri River? Let's even expand it: install some storage bins and grain chutes at the dams—up and over!—and maybe we could float grain all the way down from Bismarck.

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KELO puts the cart before the horse with this strange headline:

Improved Roads Could Mean More Taxes

Brief review of causality, Mr. Schaffhauser: We pay taxes. Government uses those taxes to improve roads. If we pay more taxes, we can fix more roads. So more taxes mean improved roads.

We can also consider the inverse with some broader context: South Dakota Republicans pride themselves on not raising taxes. Not raising taxes means less money available to government to keep up with road repairs. Not keeping up with road repairs means are roads deteriorate. So electing Republicans could mean crappier roads. Drive around your county for empirical proof.

Republican Senator Mike Vehle (R-20/Mitchell) continues to try to see around his party's fiscal short-sightedness, but it's tough. He figures the bill for catching up with years of neglect of our road and bridge repair needs is $400 million to $500 million. Yet he's only been able to lead his interim Highway Needs and Financing Committee to approve raising maybe a quarter of that revenue:

"What we're trying to do is say we recognize the need. We're not going to be able to fill it all, but we do realize we have to do something," Vehle said.

The committee passed a list of recommendations that would raise close to $100 million for roads and bridges. Some of it would come from proposed license fee increases. Other revenue sources would come from new or increased taxes on products related to driving, such as vehicles and fuel.

"What we tried to do was, everyone felt a little bit of pain. We aren't just going to make one area pay for it all," Vehle said [Erich Schaffhauser, "Improved Roads Could Mean More Taxes," KELOLand.com, 2014.11.09].

We Democrats don't support raising taxes just for the sake of raising taxes. We support raising taxes only when important public projects need the money... just like Republican Senator Vehle does. But Republican prejudices and pigheadedness prevent South Dakota from raising the money it needs to meet basic public needs.

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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!

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Mike Rounds's campaign manager Rob Skjønsberg has been burning up Twitter saying Rick Weiland is an extreme, far left liberal whose views are out of synch with South Dakotans...

...as opposed to the liberal, red-state-moocher policies of Rounds, Daugaard, and Noem that are in synch with South Dakota.

Consider transportation funding. South Dakota Republicans have bleated about the need for Congress to prop up the federal Highway Trust Fund. Rounds and Daugaard have touted how great they made South Dakota roads thanks to federal stimulus dollars.

But they don't back that call for federal spending with an equal commitment to state-level responsibility. Nationwide, state spending on transportation, adjusted for inflation) dropped 20% from 2002 to 2011. Federal spending over the same period, including stimulus dollars, dropped just 4%.

Nationally, the federal share of transportation funding is 24%. In South Dakota, the feds pick up 37% of the highway tab, the ninth highest in the nation.

Federal share of transportation funging 2007–2011, Pew 2014For a red state, we look awfully blue on that map. In other words, if "liberal" means relying on the federal government, South Dakota is one of the top ten liberal states in the nation.

Governor Daugaard has acknowledged that South Dakota's state-level funding is dwindling. He has proposed that we "restore the purchasing power of the gas tax," which is the hilarious conservative euphemism for "Let's raise taxes!" If "liberal" means asking people to pay more taxes, well, there Dennis goes.

South Dakota Republicans like to shout "liberal!" They are projecting their self-loathing, because when they get down to the brass tacks of practical policy like highway funding, they realize that we South Dakotans are all liberals.

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Mr. Ehrisman rightly dings his hometown for plopping a school in a neighborhood with no sidewalks and then banning students from walking. The absurdity of a pedestrian ban around George McGovern Middle School rankles on multiple levels:

  1. Cities should not build any public facility that can be accessed only by motor vehicle.
  2. Schools dedicated to teaching kids healthy lifestyles should never make a rule against walking.
  3. Local governments should spend less time bickering about jurisdiction (the city's "flagpole annexation" of 40 acres for the school and just a narrow strip to connect it to the city proper makes unclear who ought to lay footpath along the connecting road) and more time solving problems.
  4. Parents should not put up with the school's interference with their lifestyle choices. If George McGovern Middle School parents want their kids to walk home, then when the school calls to alert them that their children are walking, the parents should respond, "Yup, they sure are. What's it to ya?"

City Engineer Chad Huwe says a four-foot sidewalk in a developed urban area costs $25 per foot. A ten-foot-wide asphalt pedestrian path costs up to $140 per foot. Let's meet in the middle and say we could build some sort of walking path for George McGovern Middle Schoolers for $80 a foot. Let's say we need to build two miles of walking path around the school on Maple Street and Marion Road to the nearest housing developments. That's $844,800. If one bus route costs a school district $37,000 a year, the school district could pay for those two miles of sidewalk with the savings of eliminating four of its bus routes from McGovern over six years.

But if the city and county and school board can't find a way to make the kids safe, then it's up to us. I know it's asking a lot of Sioux Falls motorists who seem to think cars always have the right of way, but motorists, slow the heck down. Pay attention, share the road, and let those kids get to and from school.

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The Bakken oil boom is making North Dakota rich! Too bad its universities are falling apart:

Students returning this week will attend classes in buildings without adequate ventilation or fire detection systems and in historic landmarks with buckling foundations. A space crunch is making it difficult for researchers to obtain grants and putting the accreditation of several programs at risk, administrators say.

“It’s embarrassing,” said North Dakota state Representative Kathy Hawken, a Republican from Fargo who sits on the higher education funding and budget committees. “We have a divided legislature on higher ed: Some think we put too much money into it and some think we don’t put enough. Buildings aren’t people, so we don’t put dollars there” [Jennifer Oldham, "North Dakota Universities Crumble as Oil Cash Pours In," Bloomberg, 2014.08.26].

Moving that money from petro-tax revenues to classrooms is complicated: Oldham reports that 30% of the money is locked up in a state trust fund until 2017, while another big chunk goes to municipalities. The $300 million the North Dakota Legislature gets faces competition from road needs. While the universities need $808 million in repairs, the state also needs $925 million to fix roads statewide over the next two years, including $485 million for repairs to industry-battered oil-patch roads.

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President Harry Truman endorses Rickstock:

Photo from Kevin Weiland, Rickstock Facebook page, 2014.08.06

Photo from Kevin Weiland, Rickstock Facebook page, 2014.08.06

While I tie-dye my press hat for the big August 16 Rick Weiland musical fundraiser in Piedmont, the Democratic candidate continues his crusade to win a seat in the Senate by shaking hands in every town in the state. Journalist Kevin Woster is impressed with the effort Weiland is making in a campaign he's "almost" certain to lose:

It’s the “almost,” of course, along with a young, palm-studying staff of smart-phone addicts, that gets Weiland out of bed early each day to pound the pavement, press the flesh and pass mile after mile of lonesome South Dakota roads in a low-budget, wrist-wrenching retail campaign he wouldn’t trade for just about anything. OK, maybe he’d trade it for a lot of campaign cash and a 15-point lead over Rounds, but let’s get serious. This is South Dakota, where Republican candidates begin any statewide campaign with a 50,000 vote edge over Democrats in registered voters.

Still, Weiland is serious about the campaign and actually seems inspired by it. Asked to compare this campaign to his previous two, Weiland said: “This one has been much more hands on. It’s a real campaign, and these are real visits. Our goal has been to meet at least one person in every town. And we’ve done that" [Kevin Woster, "Haven't Been to Hillsview? You Haven't Really Campaigned," KELOLand.com, 2014.08.05].

Rick Weiland campaign van next to SDGOP campaign bus

Rick vs. Mike—David vs. Goliath

Compare Rick's hard-charging minivan tour of South Dakota with Mike Rounds's comfortable cruise around the state in a giant wrapped bus, and you can understand why the press, not to mention hard-working voters, might talk more about Weiland's travels than about what a Weiland fundraising pitch deems the GRA$$ROOT$ EXPRE$$. Weiland's Everywhere-Everyman-van versus Rounds's luxury travel could also explain why, even though he has more name recognition, his favorable–unfavorable ratio is notably worse than Weiland's.

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