This is the Sue Wismer we've been waiting for.
This is the Sue Wismer who would have beaten Joe Lowe by 30 points.
This is the Sue Wismer who can beat Dennis Daugaard.
South Dakota's three gubernatorial candidates debated in the steamy Dakotafest tent right by Mitchell yesterday. Nobody wilted, but Democrat Susan Wismer bloomed. In a display of rhetorical grit that nobody expected (seriously, I challenge you, find someone who did), the accountant from Britton snapped her pencils and took it to Governor Dennis Daugaard on Medicaid expansion, education, EB-5, and the failure of one-party rule in South Dakota.
The opening statements were mild and predictable. Independent Mike Myers, with his usual deliberate yet pointed delivery, said he's too old to be bought and needs a job. He spotlighted his health co-op plan, which he said would put us in control of health care instead of the Sanford/Avera corporate complex.
Republican Governor Daugaard rattled off his achievements in the "big job" to which we elected him four years ago. He said his administration eliminated a budget deficit (pre-emptively refuting his predecessor, Mike Rounds, would claim in the subsequent Senate candidates' debate that there never was a deficit). The Governor then said he's faced record flooding, widlfires, ice storms, a blizzard, a tornado... which might lead some to worry that God isn't raining favor on the current administration. Daugaard then touted his criminal justice reform bill and the addition of K-12, college, and vo-tech programs (which Mike Larson will tell you is specious poppycock, considering all the cuts Daugaard made to worsen the education crisis).
Wismer offered her own homey-farmy biography, but then she went on offense. She said she is running for the people not represented by the current administration. Opening the theme of one-party rule, she said she wants to bring to Pierre a healthy competition of ideas that has been missing for a long time.
And Wismer kept punching throughout the debate.
Top Priorities: Medicaid Expansion vs. Austerity
Asked about top priorities, Wismer went right to Medicaid expansion. She said that South Dakota could get $272 million a year and health coverage for 48,000 South Dakotans with the stroke of a pen. Instead, Daugaard refuses on ideological grounds to expand Medicaid under the ACA, leaving hospitals to write off $88 million in uncompensated care and leaving counties and the rest of us to should those costs.
Myers spoke more generally of the need to move away from political, economic, and financial bankruptcy and reduce insurance premiums that cost more than monthly mortgage payments. He said took another shot at the corporate health care complex, saying their high-price ads and executive salaries call into question their non-profit status. He also spoke of shifting money from end-of-life care to long-term care.
Daugaard avoided addressing Wismer's and Myers's concerns about health care and rattled off more of his fiscal conservatism, saying his budget cuts were great and courageous and that we can't afford to spend money we don't have. He also cited the #1 ranking for business that all of his fiscal conservatism won for South Dakota from CNBC, but didn't address why this year CNBC dropped us to #11.
K-12 Education Funding
Asked how to establish stable long-term funding for K-12 schools, Myers piled together comments about investing in children, looking at pay and Common Core, and putting teachers and parents in charge of the process. Myers did not address the specific question of how to fund K-12 priorities.
Daugaard said that even with his 2011 cuts (which he said were the least amount taken from any budget area), the state still spends more general fund dollars on education than anything else. He said the current funding formula works and is providing schools this year with an increase twice that of inflation. He then repeated his implication that K-12 ed is bloated, with 50,000 fewer students than when he went to school but 10% more teachers and double the administration and other staff. Daugaard averred that he was "not saying that's right or wrong; it's a fact," but candidates don't say things in debates just to inform us; they make normative statements to persuade us that their policies are right and others are wrong.
Daugaard said the NEA says we're 51st in teacher pay but not 51st in per student funding... but keep in mind that our per-student funding reflects all sources, including the over-reliance on local and federal funds that makes up for the state's last-in-the-nation share of K-12 financial support.
Daugaard said the "first place I look to spend extra money is education," which contradicted a statement he made in his answer to the opening priority question, in which he said he used $100 million in unexpected revenue last year to reduce South Dakota's debt load.
Wismer began by saying that Lyman County still hasn't filled all of its teacher slots. She said the teacher shortage has been slow to come to public attention because schools don't like to admit that they are they are tight on staff and filling spots with what few warm bodies come forward.
Then she attacked again, asking why we love the free market but don't apply that thinking to teacher pay. She said South Dakota disrespects teachers in rhetoric and in financial priorities, making it easy for students to leave the state for the $10K or $15K more they can make teaching in neighboring states.
In a marquee line of the campaign, Wismer said, "It takes more than low taxes and great hunting" to attract young people. She said her uncle and grandpa who served in the Legislature didn't pay lip service to education and then cut the budget. "We are chasing our future right out of this state," said Wismer, and to get that future back, the tone coming from Pierre desperately needs to change.
Asked how we can export our ag products when our roads are falling apart, Daugaard drew a distinction that may start to wear on local leaders: he asserted that state infrastructure is hunky-dory while local roads and bridges are suffering. (This is akin to his answer on teacher pay, which he says is a local decision, not the state's—translation: don't blame Dennis!) Daugaard said the state highway system is in the best condition it's been in many years because (oh, drumroll, please!) we got over $200 million in stimulus that accelerated our road projects.
Say it with me: self-reliance.
Daugaard said county and local officials report lots of roads in fair to poor condition and many bridges functionally obsolete, unable to accommodate the width and weight of new farm equipment. He said his staff and the Legislature are studying the issue and considering solutions, including an increase in the gasoline tax.
Wismer looked Washington-ward and urged Congress to get its act together on highway funding. She agreed with restrained irony that the federal stimulus helped a lot. She said past leaders showed foresight in buying and preserving the core rail lines and said we should expand railroads to ease the strain on our highways.
Then came more Wismer buckshot. The state, she said, is passing the buck (not the bucks) to the locals, leaving struggling to pass wheel taxes. Responding to Daugaard's promise of diligent study, she said the state studies this issue all the time but doesn't dare talk about solutions, let alone act. "This administration continues to stand in way of allowing locals to take care of their own issues," said Wismer. "That will change with me as governor."
Myers said the counties are contributing to road problems by draining water away to their downstream neighbors, washing away their roads. He noted that his clique of old and cranky breakfast companions told him that in his days as a legislator, Daugaard supported regional water district but now as governor opposes them. "Where a person stands depends on where they sit," said Myers.
Medicaid Expansion Redux
Moderator Jerry Oster asked all three candidates to address Medicaid expansion and the millions non-expanding states are losing.
Wismer again cited the 48,000 people, the population of Mitchell and Brookings combined, who right now go to bed not knowing if they can afford whatever might happen tomorrow. Wismer said expanding Medicaid would provide preventive care that would decrease costs, emergency conditions, and ER visits.
Wismer claimed the Governor's refusal to expand Medicaid is an ideological problem. Wismer said Daugaard is perhaps handcuffed by extreme right-wing voices, costing South Dakota $272 million a year.
Myers didn't talk about Medicaid expansion. He talked about deaths from iatrogenesis and said, "access saves and access kills." There's a point there, but explaining it requires more text than Myers fit into his two minutes. Myers proposed a "Health Care Financial Informed Consent Act" to require up-front sticker prices on every medical service. That's a totally sensible idea, but it also fails to answer the Medicaid question.
Daugaard opened with another lecture about the mechanics of the topic. Eventually getting to the question, Daugaard said that because Ben Bernanke is worried that Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable, South Dakota should not buy into expanding Medicaid as a third entitlement. He fretted about the state cost: expanding Medicaid would cost South Dakota only a couple million the first couple years, but state costs would grow to $36 million a year over time. What trade-offs, cuts, deprivations to education or other needs will we be making, Daugaard asked.
Daugaard said, "We value self-reliance (see above, on stimulus and roads). We should "help those who can't help themselves." He said half of the 48,000 Wismer cites can already get insurance on the federal exchange (though I suspect he supports a lawsuit that would make that insurance unaffordable for those South Dakotans).
But in his final word on the topic, Daugaard said he's "open to considering expansion." We didn't have time to wonder at that whiplash, because then rolled forth the thunder of...
Myers, who was shaking his head during the question, sadi EB-5 is the most visible sign of South Dakota's oft-highly ranked corruption. He applauded Wismer's efforts to dig deeper.
Then Myers got weird, saying a Republican legislator told him that an FBI report says the muzzle of the shotgun was more than 18 inches from the tummy. That's how Myers said it, not filling in the name of Richard Benda, the disgraced Rounds/EB-5 official (and fall guy?) who died of a shotgun blast last October. He offered to show a copy of Benda's death certificate and have a helper demonstrate how Benda would have had to hold the shotgun to kill himself after the debate. I did not attend this promised sideshow, and I am unclear on how such a macabre demonstration advances the debate on EB-5.
Myers did say his first action as governor would be to appoint a special prosecutor to find where our money went in the EB-5 scandal and make sure we don't lose such money again.
Daugaard again signaled that if EB-5 goes south, he will cut Rounds loose. EB-5 "started before my administration," said Daugaard, and he emphasized that his Office of Economic Development hasn't used it. He suggested that the investigations of a Republican state attorney general and a Demcoratic U.S. Attorney are sufficient assurance of fair and thorough investigation. He lauded the three audits he ordered and says he has implemented every recommendation of those audits to ensure the problems that have arisen from EB-5 don't happen again.
"I wasn't there!" said Daugaard. He said he is trying to be as transparent as he can and is not hiding anything.
Wismer spoke of EB-5's "long, tortured history" and "several bankrupt projects" (easy, Sue: here in South Dakota, it's two: Northern Beef Packers and the Veblen dairies... though South Dakota legal usage equates several and two). Wismer said the EB-5 promoters "used state's good name to make promises the state couldn't keep." Bad actors abused our state's credibility.
On a policy level, Wismer said we shouldn't invest foreign money in projects that South Dakota money was smart enough not to invest in. We shouldn't support a program that lets foreigners buy way to the front of the green-card line.
Wismer challenged the Governor's audits, saying they were very carefully designed to avoid the questions we are asking today about how the state ran EB-5. The lack of a second for her motion to subpoena EB-5 mastermind Joop Bollen shows the ills of one-party rule. EB-5 is "emblematic of the larger issue of one-party dominance of both branches" that is "just not healthy," said Wismer. "There are people whose jobs depend on telling the governor what he wants to hear and not the truth."
Economic and Workforce Development
Asked what role the state should play in developing the economy, workforce, and wages, Daugaard offered three goals. We should encourage existing South Dakota businesses to grow with a stable, low-tax, low-cost, reasonable-regulatory environment. We should attract outside businesses, as we did with 3M and AKG. And we should encourage entrepreneurial spirit, as we did by letting Joop Bollen and Richard Benda run EB-5 without proper oversight (oh, sorry—that's my example, not Dennis's).
Daugaard said the state can provide low-cost loans, tax incentives to compete with other states, trade missions to help manufacturers find new markets, and provide good infrastructure. Daugaard did not mention education as a component of economic development, but he did fret over imaginary federal rules that would keep children from driving tractors.
Wismer said she was proud to be a part of a solution during the 2013 session, "what we thought was going to be a good economic development plan." (Hear Susan winding up again?). The voters' rejection in 2012 of the governor's plan to hand money from the general fund to corporate interests allowed a real bipartisan discussion and compromise. Wismer said 2013 Senate Bill 235 put legislators on the state economic development board, funded housing development (especially in small communities), directed money to infrastructure (roads, water, sewer, etc. to support business), and directed money toward community development. But this winter, says Wismer, Governor Daugaard ripped out the funding mechanism for that compromise and left funding to the Governor's discretion.
Myers said that economic development in South Dakota has suffered from bad actors (and into my head pops the Reagan presidency), and as governor he will pose economic development questions to Daugaard and Rounds, either voluntarily or under oath, but he didn't say what questions.
Myers then bent the question to one of his favorite issues, hemp. He said politics gets in the way of good solutions. Hemp could be a billion-dollar industry in South Dakota and could thrive especially on the reservations, but Myers said the Big Oil, lumber, and cotton lobbyists oppose hemp for business reasons. Besides, as he wittily put it, hemp makes rope, rope rhymes with dope, and that means marijuana! In his his best laugh line of the afternoon, Myers said that by the same thinking, we should ban corn because it can make whiskey.
Asked if there is a teacher shortage and what the state ought to do about it, Wismer said we need to "change the tenor of the conversation from Pierre" that currently disrespects teachers. She said our budget cuts have driven the teacher shortage. Our budget cuts forced schools to cut the vo-tech programs that produced the welders and machinists of whom the Governor now complains we don't have enough.
Wismer said we are reaping the consequences of 40 years of the lowest teacher salaries in the nation. "The free market works, folks. Why are we surprised?" She cited a university president who told her Appropriations Committee that South Dakota is short of math and science teachers. Asked how to recruit new teachers, Wismer said the university president gave a simple answer: "Respect them and pay them better; end of story."
Myers said we have to spend money to make money but must spend it in the right places. He said he can't think of a better place to invest than education, but it has to be relevant education. He talked about kids using the Internet, but failed to tie that to addressing the teacher shortage.
Daugaard said, "The teacher shortage is no different from the shortage in other fields." He said he has tried to address that general shortage through his bull sessions—er, I mean, workforce summits.
He admitted the shortage is a supply and demand issue (so more pay should work to prove our demand and increase supply, right?), but he said the problem exists in other states (in other words, again, don't blame Dennis!) He said we have trouble finding teachers because of our low unemployment rate.
He said the free market does work, but he then shifted blame to the evil teachers union. He said the union demands pay based on tenure and college degrees, not quality of performance. He touted his 2012 plan to pay math and science teachers more (you know, the plan we voters soundly rejected).
Daugaard gave away his ground by affirming Wismer's position: "I'm open to paying more based on market conditions; more money will attract more people to these professions." But in his final dodge, Daugaard said school boards set salaries, not the state.
Myers repeated that we should subpoena Rounds and Daugaard on EB-5. He made a new promise to abolish the Governor's Hunt and establish the People's Hunt. Saying he's not a career politician and not for sale, he exhorted us to think for ourselves.
Daugaard clsoed by saying, "I appreciate that several people are still awake out there." (Translation: I really hope you found everything Susan said boring, because if you were paying attention, you saw here give me a beating!) "I am honest... I'm not motivated by money or power; I left a good job in banking... to take less money to work in a children's charity." Daugaard promised to "never stop listening, never stop learning, never stop working for you."
Wismer pressed her attack right to the end. She harkened to her days on the swather and having a broken sickle section. That broken part would leave a row uncut, and that flaw wouldn't go away by ignoring it. She had to stop and fix it.
Wismer said our ancestors left us a well-run swather, but the current administration is letting sickles break and not replacing them. We're letting roads and bridges decay and letting schools decline. The Governor won't acknowledge the damage, said Wismer, but the damage is there, and the consequences are mounting.
Wismer closed saying we need to "change the priority from taking care of Pierre to taking care of people."
Susan Wismer brought exactly the fire that an underdog needs to beat an incumbent, to pierce the shield of unearned popularity that leads many observers to think Daugaard is a shoe-in. Wismer brought this fire for the first time, surprising everyone who expected the Wismer of the primary who didn't project the same charisma, leadership, and righteous anger as primary challenger Joe Lowe.
For the uninitiated, the Dakotafest debate showed a passionate and aggressive Democratic candidate who is ready to go toe to toe with a Republican Governor, challenge his one-party complacency and blame-shifting, and lead this state back to the right path.
Susan Wismer sounds like the new woman (the new Amazon?) that we Democrats want and need and that Republicans should fear. Go get 'em, Susan!