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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Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Mike Rounds is telling the press that federal stimulus dollars made South Dakota highways better. Rounds is emphasizing that South Dakota needs big government because it depends on nearly $300 million dollars every year to maintain its roads. And the Republican is saying he wants more big government help for South Dakota in the form of replenishing the Highway Trust Fund... because when he was governor, he knew darn well that depletion of the Highway Trust Fund would mean South Dakota would have to spend more of its own money, and Rounds never supported that kind of self-reliance.

Alas, Rounds says, Congress is struggling to pass that vital legislation because "nobody" trusts President Obama:

You can't give 'em more money until you know how they're going to spend it, and I think that's the biggest problem we've got in D.C. is, is nobody trusts that the Administration will spend the money the way they say that they will [Marion Michael Rounds, audio interview, "Rounds Supports Highway Funding Bill," KJAM Radio, 2014.07.24].

Hold on, Mike—I think you're projecting. You don't trust President Obama. You took stimulus dollars that President Obama and Congress intended for education and then spent those dollars on other budget items.

But hey, suppose Rounds is right. Suppose the problem with highway funding is that Senators don't trust President Obama.

Since President Obama isn't on the 2014 ballot, there's one obvious solution: elect Senators who trust President Obama. Elect Rick Weiland.

Thanks for the advice, Mike!

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Who needs highways when I've got a horse!

Who needs highways when I've got a horse!

What?! Kristi Noem still hasn't fixed the Highway Trust Fund? What do we pay our Congresswoman for?

While Kristi's colleagues fiddle with short-term stopgaps to fill our potholes, a new study funded by the Soybean Transportation Coalition suggests that a long-term fix may rely on some tax judo: ease drivers into a long-term gasoline-tax increase with an immediate tax break.

The federal gasoline tax has hung at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Back then, that would have been about an 18% tax on gasoline. Today, 18.4 cents per $3.75 gallon is about 5%.

The soybean lobby suggests knocking a penny off the gasoline tax as a political palliative but then indexing the gasoline tax to inflation to keep up with the cost of concrete, steel, and everything else we need to build and maintain roads. Their study, conducted by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, says that inflation-indexing would make up for the lost revenue of the penny drop within four or five years. The study finds that South Dakota would take a $6.7-million hit in the first year, but we'd recoup the loss by 2019. By 2025, we'd accumulate $119 million in extra revenue ($25.9 million in 2025 alone) while paying 3.4 cents more per gallon.

Governor Daugaard will tell you that raising more money through the gasoline tax by indexing it to inflation is not a new tax or a tax increase; it's just restoring the purchasing power of the gas tax. Alas, the cut-then-index plan would extend the road budget bind for another couple years before road-building states would see any progress. Is additional fiscal pain (and rump pain, as you bounce over those potholes) really the only way we can coax Kristi and Congress into fixing the Highway Trust Fund?

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On Monday, Pat Powers bemoaned the loss of his "texting freedom" as South Dakota inched toward common sense in enacting its ban on texting while driving.

Christopher Weber of Madison shows us what "texting freedom" really means:

One minute Christopher Weber was checking his smartphone, trying to navigate mobile banking options as he guided his pickup truck along Highway 270. The next, according to a criminal complaint, he was attempting CPR on a young mother who was out for a bicycle ride with her two young children when she was hit by Weber's truck in southwestern Minnesota.

...Andrea Boeve, 33, of Steen, was biking with her young daughters along the shoulder of Highway 270 on Monday morning when Weber's pickup drifted over the white line, the State Patrol said. The pickup struck and killed Boeve about a quarter-mile from her home. There were no skid marks, the complaint said.

Weber told the investigator, "yes it would be fair to say, it could be," when asked if he was looking at his phone and not the road, the complaint said ["Madison Man Charged in Death of Minnesota Cyclist," AP via Madison Daily Leader, 2014.07.02].

While you're at it, Pat, how about bleating about how the BAC and sobriety checkpoints infringe on your "drinking freedom."

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