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Joe Lowe Challenges Daugaard on Economic Development, Education, Medicaid

Joe Lowe knows history is against him. South Dakotans haven't elected a Democrat as their governor since 1974. But Lowe believes 2014 is different. In this interview with the Madville Times, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate says his positions on and plans for economic development, education, emergency response, and Medicaid, combined with the missteps made by current Governor Dennis Daugaard, will help Democrats retake the governor's office.

Economic Development

Lowe sees economic development as a key area where he can distinguish himself from the Daugaard administration. Lowe says South Dakota spends too much time trying to recruit out-of-state businesses. He doesn't want to end such recruitment, but he wants to spend more time developing South Dakota's native human capital. Lowe emphasizes the lessons of this 2013 National Governors Association paper on "Top Trends in State Economic Development," which emphasizes creating jobs by supporting new entrepreneurs in-state. He would like South Dakota to follow Nebraska and Tennessee in using Gallup's Entrepreneur Acceleration System to identify and assist local businesses with the greatest growth potential.

Lowe says the business leaders he speaks to says they have trouble finding skilled tradespeople. Governor Daugaard has apparently heard the same complaints, but for all his workforce summits and recruitment initiatives, the problem persists.

Lowe supports economic development, but he has taken strong positions against two big energy projects promising economic benefits, the Keystone XL pipeline and the Powertech/Azarga uranium mining plan. Lowe wants South Dakota to help America achieve energy independence. He wants to promote wind and solar, but he says fossil fuels are still an essential part of the American energy portfolio. If we found Bakken oil under Harding County, Lowe says he'd be happy to drill and pipe it, as along as it was done safely and promoted South Dakota jobs.

Lowe says that if Keystone XL were piping oil to American uses, and if the steel for the pipe were better, and if it were creating more economic boost, he could rethink his position. But as he understands it, TransCanada is building Keystone XL to ship Canadian tar sands oil to China. (Lowe understands correctly.) The steel for the southern leg of the pipe has already shown numerous flaws. Lowe says the steel isn't coming from U.S. mills; it's from China and India (and TransCanada has already ordered and stockpiling that steel on the Great Plains, so approving the pipeline won't result in a surge of more steel production). The pipeline promises to create a couple thousand temporary construction jobs (how many will actually be South Dakotans? Lowe wonders) but only 30 to 50 permanent jobs spread out from Alberta to Nebraska.

That meager benefit, says Lowe, is far outweighed by the potential for ecological disaster. Lowe says tar sands oil isn't like regular crude. The bitumen in it causes spills to sink, making cleanup much more difficult. A pipeline similar to Keystone XL spilled thousands of barrels of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River four years ago, and the riverbed is still a mess. Keystone XL crosses the Missouri River in Montana and the Ogallala Aquifer in South Dakota and Nebraska. The Canadians don't want Keystone XL's risk; why should we take it?

Lowe shows sensitivity to downsides of Keystone XL that will appeal to groups of voters beyond us treehuggers (or, on the prairie, tall-grass-huggers?). He notes that Keystone XL may disturb American Indian burial sites. He recalls that when he was fighting wildfires, he had to bring an archaeologist with him to ensure that his crews didn't dig fire lines through culturally significant areas. Lowe also takes a strong stand against the use of eminent domain for Keystone XL. He said it boggles him that we would allow a foreign company to take land from South Dakota landowners. Hmm... it sounds like Lowe could gain traction with the Indian and cowboy alliance.

Lowe rejects Powertech's uranium in-situ leach mining on the same risk-benefit analysis. From his reading so far on the issue, Lowe concludes mining more uranium from the southern Black Hills won't create a lot of jobs, and the demonstrated risks to groundwater and the land are too great.

Lowe also draws on his experience as state fire chief to highlight another risk in Powertech's plan: what if there's a transportation accident? What if a truck hauling the recovered uranium crashes and starts a fire? Lowe says standard procedure for such a fire would require firefighters to secure a wide perimeter and let the fire burn out rather than risk direct exposure to the spilled radioactive materials. (Bonus danger: throw water on uranium, and you get hydrogen, which is flammable.) Firefighters would also be busy evacuating people downwind from the radioactive smoke plume.

Rather than protecting South Dakota interests, Lowe says the state has too easily given to these energy projects in hopes of making a buck. Governor Daugaard signed a bill in 2011 ceding South Dakota's authority over uranium mining to the EPA; Lowe says he would have vetoed that legislation. Lowe says the state threw tax incentives and rebates at TransCanada for its first Keystone pipeline, even though TransCanada was able and determined to build the project without any state handouts. He says South Dakota's economic developers tried to throw EB-5 money at Keystone XL just to land big commissions.

Given the state's dubious economic development practices, I asked Lowe if he would discontinue the EB-5 visa investment program. Lowe said he can't answer that until we have all the answers about what has happened with EB-5 in the Daugaard and Rounds administrations. Lowe calls EB-5 a "colossal failure" that points to a "culture of corruption" in the state's economic development program. Lowe says EB-5 clearly suffered from a lack of oversight, but we need to understand the full story of that failure. We need to hear from disgraced former EB-5 director Joop Bollen. The Legislature, says Lowe, has avoided its responsibility to dig for answers; Lowe says we need an independent investigation into EB-5 and the Governor's Office of Economic Development to give us the answers we need to proceed with responsible and effective economic development policy.

More oversight is needed in the Future Fund, says Lowe, to prevent corruption. Lowe finds it unacceptable that the governor can hand Future Fund grants to businesses and then receive campaign contributions from honchos in those businesses. Lowe wants stronger, bipartisan oversight of Future Fund grants. He also would like to ban Future Fund recipients from contributing to in-state political campaigns.

Lowe reacts with caution to the idea of flying to China like Governor Daugaard to drum up business for South Dakota. He wants to promote exports for South Dakota, but he says the governor should exercise his muscle strictly in government-to-government contacts to arrange official agreements that can benefit all businesses in the state. Businesspeople accompanying the governor on such foreign trips can serve as experts to help the governor negotiate such agreements, but those businesspeople should negotiate their specific foreign contracts on their own dime.


On education, I asked Lowe how much he thinks a teacher is worth. Quite a bit, said Lowe. We want our kids to compete globally, so we want to have the best teachers. Lowe says drawing the best talent requires offering at least average teacher pay. The national average is $56,383; South Dakota's average is $39,580. Lowe would settle for the regional average: in the six adjoining states, the average is $51,998.

That's a big goal, but Lowe says that where there's a will, there's a way. As Governor, Lowe would establish higher teacher pay as a priority and look for other areas in the budget from which to reallocate money. He'd review existing programs to identify any available efficiencies. If available revenues and other alternatives absolutely could not boost teacher pay enough, Lowe says he would come to the voters, explain the fiscal situation, and ask them to vote on a new funding mechanism, perhaps something like the part-time extra-penny tourism tax proposed by Lowe's neighbor Senator Stan Adelstein in 2011.

Emergency Response

Lowe sees a need for better leadership from the governor on disaster response. Still rankled by what he sees as a weak response to the October blizzard, Lowe says that, given an impending storm, he'd be in contact with the weather service to get a clear picture of the threat and with his cabinet to ensure every department was ready. He'd open the state emergency operations center and be the face of storm response, going on the air to advise citizens of big events like the October blizzard and urging them to stock up on supplies and get off the roads. Lowe says Governor Daugaard failed to take those actions last October.

Lowe says the cost of failure in emergency response is too great. He sees no place for political appointees in emergency response; from top management to front-line fire crews, Lowe vows to hire only top-notch professionals for such jobs.

Medicaid Expansion

Lowe takes emergency management seriously because it's about protecting people from harm. The same concern for people fuels his passion about the Medicaid expansion. He wonders why we would choose to leave 48,000 South Dakotans out of affordable health care. "It's just mean," says Lowe.

Lowe also says it's foolish for the state to pass up the fiscal benefits of the Medicaid expansion. We gladly take federal funds for other programs, like highway construction and pine beetle mitigation. Lowe says turning down federal dollars for health coverage, as well as all the economic benefits that would come with that fiscal infusion, shows that Governor Daugaard is more influenced by his ultra-conservative base than by broader concern for the well-being of all South Dakotans.

Get out the Word, Get out the Vote

Lowe says he meets Dems who had the wind taken out of their sails by the 2004 and 2010 elections. They worked hard for Tom Daschle and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, only to see those Democrats beaten by half-truths. Those Dems thus hesitate to invest heart and soul in today's Dem campaigns (hmm... sounds like Lowe has been talking to David Newquist).

Lowe says 2014 is different. Lowe tells Dems to look at Daugaard's record on Medicaid, storm response, education, and economic development. Lowe says Dems can win by telling South Dakotans that story, showing them how the current administration has put ideology and cronyism over good management and common interests. Rousing the Irish fight in his genes (his mother immigrated from Ireland), Lowe says he won't let Daugaard evade that record or roll over him with false attacks. Now, says Lowe, he just needs to inspire Dems to lay down the serious cash it will take to counter the GOP money machine, get out his message, and get out the vote.


  1. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.19

    Joe Lowe, will you marry me?
    Cory, will you be my maid of honor?
    I'm sorry Blindman, but it's all over between us. I can't keep waiting for you.

  2. Anne Beal 2014.05.19

    The problem of a lack of skilled tradesmen is interesting because if you start telling parents their kids should go to vocational school they get mad. Everybody wants their kids to go to college. So we have lots of unemployed college graduates and not enough people with marketable skills. Selling people on the idea that maybe their kids would be better off knowing how to do something is going to be tricky.

  3. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.19

    That's a legitimate argument Anne. Businesses that really want, and are eager to get skilled labor employees are turning to paid internships and apprenticeships. It really pays off for them, and appears to be the best method of acquiring skilled labor.

    I'm not comfortable with schools serving as free training for particular businesses. It feels like an unhealthy partnership. Unhealthy for the school, that is. I concede that I may be wrong about that. I know that many such partnerships have been fruitful for all involved.

    My concern is that the school will eventually lose autonomy to the business. Then citizen tax dollars would be paying for the business's education expenses.

  4. lesliengland 2014.05.19

    everybody should go to college unless they don't want to. what is a marketable skill tomorrow?

  5. Les 2014.05.19

    Who knows what college level skill will be marketable.
    Are you still going to be pooping and making water, leslie? We know that mess will be with us a long time. .
    I see many if not much more than many college educated folks fall on their face when taken from the vertical field of their education.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.05.19

    Anne has a point: there are a fair number of people going to college not because it's their best option but... just because. (I went "just because" for about two months. It took another six weeks of working construction in subzero weather to help me figure out the reasons I wanted to go to college.)

    That said, I can understand the vast majority of parents pushing college over vo-tech. As Leslie suggests, a strong college education may provide more versatility and be less likely to be automated out of existence than a vocational education. Perhaps parents are thinking of Detroit 1980?

    Deb, is it o.k. to dedicate our vo-techs to educating students toward specific jobs requested by industry, while insulating our colleges from those market pressures and keeping them dedicated to higher learning? South Dakota's universities are already functioning very much like vocational schools—consider the entirely job-focused graduate programs at DSU. But then if DSU didn't offer such courses, who would?

  7. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.19

    That's a fair question Cory, and one I have very mixed feelings about.
    ". . . is it o.k. to dedicate our vo-techs to educating students toward specific jobs requested by industry. . ."

    I think what we're talking about is the very essence of education. Is it more general? I.e. to give one the general tools for a life of learning new things; things that the employer is responsible for? I'm thinking of residency programs for doctors, apprenticeships for steel workers, internships for journalists, continuing education for teachers, seminars for managers?

    Or is the purpose of education to train an individual in the specific skills wanted by a certain employer at a certain time at no expense to the employer? Instead, should all training costs be borne by the student and the public?

    I lean toward the first one, but I'm not totally committed to it.

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.19

    After writing the previous comment, I'm thinking that the best answer to the purpose of education is a combination of the two I offered above. Well?

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.05.19

    Oh, Deb, don't go dragging me into philosophy!

    The key political question in Deb's question may not be "What is an education?" Education includes lots of things. The key political question appears to be, "Whose responsibility is it to teach those things?" The state (especially the democratic state) clearly has an obligation to teach children to be good citizens. The state has some obligation to teach children to be good workers, to the extent that good workers support the state with productivity and tax revenue. The state's obligation ends somewhere short of training children to support a specific business... although the state of South Dakota takes a different position on that point with its graduate program for Eagle Creek Software workers in Vermillion. There are a lot of companies expecting government handouts when it comes to training.

    But I can't resist swinging at that "essence of education" question. Is it accurate to say that we Americans cap the essence of education in high school and fork student learning paths after that, college or vo-tech? Dare I suggest that the essence of education is the body of knowledge and skills that is timeless, independent of market forces and technological innovation? Is the essence of education the essence of humanity and society?

  10. Dean Anderson 2014.05.20

    On KeystoneXL, the problem isn't just steel, its the cleanup. In fact, its only the cleanup since no matter what the steel, it will eventually require being pulled out of the ground. Either it needs replacement or eventually there won't be anymore oil to pump through it. Someday the pipeline is done. Transcanada's only asset is the pipeline, so when the pipeline is done, they'll just close up shop and leave. Leaving it to the state of SD and to the abutting landowners to clean it up, or it maybe it becomes a federal superfund site. I sat through a talk given by EIA at the Harvard Kennedy School of Gov't a few weeks ago, and it was observed there that a reason we are interested in Canadian sour crude is that refineries in the gulf coast are specialized to refine Venezuelan sour crude, and there might be a 'disruption' on that supply. If KeystoneXL was fully funded for cleanup in advance, I'd probably be OK with it. But if not, then no way. I'm an owner of abutting land in SD, living on the east coast.

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