You’ve read the lower five of the top ten – now here are what I viewed as the top five state political issues for 2016:
5. South Dakota legislature increases teacher pay.
The issue of teacher pay has been swirling around in South Dakota politics longer than the 28 years I’ve been around. But in recent years, it was brought to a higher profile with a failed lawsuit against the state, and more importantly, a study which showed how far behind South Dakota was as it competed with its neighboring states.
That, coupled with an ever increasing inability to place certified educators in classrooms moved the South Dakota State Legislature as well as the Governor to move past the study phase into a plan of action which had the support of a majority of legislators. And that was not without it’s controversy.
Warring over the pay increase for teachers had Majority Leader Brian Gosch going after Rep Roger Solum (a tech school employee), which earned him the ire of State Representative Lee Schoenbeck, who verbally scolded him. In turn, Gosch had Schoenbeck removed from caucus, which contributed to Schoenbeck considering an early departure from the legislature. This battle died down somewhat, but the war continued to rage.
The issue of the passed and signed into law teacher pay increase continued to rage, especially in the legislative primaries. Among those where the new teacher pay law played a factor, in District 30, State Representative Lance Russell, who opposed the plan, challenged State Senator Bruce Rampelberg who supported it. With District 30 largely consisting of districts which lost teachers over the newly minted plan, it was a major factor in Rampelberg’s 41% to 59% defeat.
Legislative study co-chair Representative Jacqueline Sly who was term limited in running for the house took the passage of the education legislation as fuel to take on controversial State Senator Phil Jensen. However, in this hotly contested race, anticipated support for her candidacy from the educational community did not materialize, and Jensen captured the office for another term.
And this still was not the end of teacher pay legislation controversy. During the fall election, some legislators were criticized for standing in opposition to the teacher pay increase plan during session, but campaigning on the basis of their support for education and teacher pay. Needless to say, some people disagreed.
Ultimately, pay in many instances has increased in some degree for teachers across the state, moving South Dakota from 51st to 43rd in the nation. It remains to be seen what legislation may be brought to adjust these figures, or to change the sales tax funding mechanism for the increase in 2017.
4. Attorney General Marty Jackley and a series of high profile prosecutions.
Marty Jackley was a busy man this past year. Not that he lounges around otherwise, but 2016 brought some of the highest profile politically involved cases.
As was long suspected (except by Democrats trying to use it for political hay), after completing their investigation, the state boiled the by now infamous “EB-5 investigation” down to the alleged actions of a pair of bad actors. One who was deceased, and one who the A.G.’s office brought charges against and is currently prosecuting for five counts of “Unauthorized Disposal of Personal Property Subject to Security Interest.”
A second set of high profile prosecutions came about as a result of the “Gear Up” Federal Grant case, where gross financial mismanagement of federal grant funds was discovered as a result of the state shutting down the flow of funds to an educational co-operative who couldn’t provide straight financial records to the state, no matter how much the state attempted to assist them with getting their act together.
And as we were soon to discover, they couldn’t provide straight records, because the spending wasn’t very straight. Notice of funds being shut off triggered the person who was thought to be the mastermind of the financial scheme to take his and his family’s lives. A subsequent investigation into the matter uncovered alleged criminal activity on the part of others including…
Phelps, 42, and Guericke, 58, have each been indicted on charges of Class 5 and Class 6 felonies including falsification of evidence and conspiracy to offer forged or fraudulent evidence. The charges each carry punishments of up to two years imprisonment, $4,000 fines or both.
Hubers, 44, won’t be as likely to avoid jail time as she was indicted on Class 4 felony charges, one count of grand theft, two counts of grand theft by deception, or three alternative counts of receiving stolen property.
These investigations were long and arduous considering the financial complexity both involved, limited legal remedies in cases of state level financial fraud, as well as the continual drumbeat of publicity in both.
The Gear Up investigations and prosecutions have caused the Attorney General to propose changes to state law for the upcoming legislative session in how financial prosecutions can be penalized, as it was recently indicated that in some instances in this case, the only tools available involved charging people with misdemeanors.
These cases were also capitalized on by others who sought to exploit them for promoting anti-corruption ballot measures at the statewide level, whether they accurately reflected areas of legal deficiency or not. Given that they involve death(s) and ill-gotten gains, the media found the EB-5 and Gear-Up cases irresistible to sensationalize.
They were dominant news items in 2015 and 2016, and now that the cases have finally became ripe for prosecution, there’s no chance of that abating.
3. South Dakota Democrats continue their downward momentum.
After the impossibly low-water mark South Dakota Democrats set in the 2014 election cycle, where they held no statewide office and continued record low legislative offices held, it was thought that Dems could sink no lower.
Enter new chairwoman Ann Tornberg, a former legislative candidate and area Teacher’s Union Boss. Winning a 4-year term to the chairperson’s seat, Tornberg managed to defy expectations that they could sink no lower, and managed to steer the state’s minority party further into the abyss
Under Tornberg’s leadership, the party managed to field Paula Hawks, a legislative candidate who had
won her seat by only 9 votes, for Congress against Congresswoman Kristi Noem. And after months of an inability to field a candidate against US Senate John Thune, they announced Jay Williams, who had run unsuccessfully for the legislature, would assume that task.
While staff-heavy with up to 4-5 staff members reportedly on the party’s payroll, Democrat fortunes continued to sour in the state as their voter registration numbers were continually reported to diminish. In addition, Democrats spent significant funds earlier in the cycle promoting ballot measures… which did not provide them any benefit by association.
Democrats continued a tradition of running placeholder candidates with no intention of running who withdrew or were replaced. In fact, in the state senate, they conceded 1/4-1/3 of races by not running candidates. And later in the cycle, for those candidates who remained to contest Republicans, Democrat state party finances did not provide the basis to support candidates in any significant way.
Ultimately derelict in the elections, and not just failing to gain numbers but adding to the decay by shedding 2 more legislators in the process, 2016 literally represented the lowest point for State Democrats in 52 years in the State of South Dakota.
A series of post-election meetings across the state noted that Democrats ended the campaign sitting on $100,000 that was unspent during this time of record losses.
With two years to go in Ann Tornberg’s term of office, we ask the question “How low can they go?” By 2018, we might have a good answer.
2. The 2016 South Dakota Ballot Measure wars.
Whether you were in favor or against, millions of dollars poured into South Dakota from out of state to promote ballot measures from outside interests. Whether payday lending, Initiated Measure 22, Amendment V, or even the victims rights measure Marsy’s Law, a lot of money was spent because people wanted to get their way. And in a few cases, such as Initiated Measure 22, Amendment V and others, often the truth was stretched, if not entirely damned.
The airwaves this fall were not dominated by political candidates in South Dakota, but by those very same ballot issues who prosecuted the message they wanted to deliver.
As a result of the money pouring in as well as abuses of the ballot and initiative process, calls have been renewed to make it tougher to get measures on the ballot, as noted by more than one recent news story:
State lawmakers worry South Dakota’s first-in-the-nation ballot initiative process could fall victim to outside groups if they don’t bring legislation creating additional hurdles. An array of proposals are now being floated, and legislative leaders say the conversation will be a top priority during the 2017 legislative session.
“For me, doing nothing is not an option as far as the South Dakota Constitution is concerned,” said state Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton. “The rules of the game have totally changed with all of this outside money that floods in. People came in here with a bushel basket full of money and bought an election.”
Bolin said he hoped that requiring a broader sample of voter support and increasing the requirements for lawmakers to refer issues would help prevent efforts to approve laws that originate outside the state’s boundaries.
Rep. Don Haggar, R-Sioux Falls, said he’s considering legislation that would increase the number of approved petition signatures to reflect 5 percent of registered voters in the state rather than 5 percent of those who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.
The Attorney General and the Secretary of State are also lining up with legislators for reforms to the ballot and initiative process.
Coming after a year when voters had to slog through ten ballot measures, including one 33 page measure where the sponsors were warned up front that it was unconstitutional but chose to send to to the voters anyway, you can expect ballot measure reform in 2017 isn’t just a possibility, but almost a certainty.
And, the South Dakota War College’s top political stories of 2016 is……
It might seem odd on it’s surface, but the #1 story in 2016 is actually the 2018 election.
All year we heard speculation as to who was going to run for what. Attorney General Marty Jackley and Speaker Pro Temp Mark Mickelson spoke at Lincoln Day Dinners and began amassing campaign funds for the 2018 Gubernatorial race.
And rumors would pop up from time to time about Congresswoman Kristi Noem who was embroiled in a race for her Congressional seat. There was talk leaking out from various friends and relations that she had an interest too.
Jackley’s and Mickelson’s interest in the race continued through the summer and early fall, and was definitely known at the State Republican Convention. But then as the election rolled around, the math abruptly changed. On November 10th, a story came out noting that Mickelson ultimately decided to take a pass:
Mark Mickelson, the Sioux Falls lawmaker who has been considered a favorite to be the state’s next governor, says he has decided not to run for the job when it’s open in 2018.
Mickelson, 50, had raised about $1 million for a campaign against potential GOP primary rivals, two of whom confirmed their interest in the job Thursday. Congresswoman Kristi Noem said she was giving a run for governor “serious consideration,” while Attorney General Marty Jackley said he was “preparing to run.”
For Mickelson, the commitment it takes to run a large statewide race was taking him away from his wife and three boys, who range in age from 17 to 13. During opening weekend for pheasant hunting, Mickelson said he was not able to enjoy himself because he was constantly worrying about running for governor.
“I guess I was miserable,” he said.
“I wasn’t enjoying myself,” he added. “I was thinking of all the things I needed to be doing.”
For a few short days, Jackley had the race to himself until the math – specifically financial math – changed the race again. As announced in media outlets, including the SDWC, Congresswoman Kristi Noem, fresh off her congressional victory, had her own announcement:
Congresswoman Noem’s interest in the 2018 Gubernatorial race had been rumored for months, and likely would have remained rumor for a while longer – had the ballot measure known as IM22 passed, which wildly changed the rules of how money could be transferred between political committees.
Immediately prior to the ballot measure taking effect, Noem and Jackley transferred funds into Gubernatorial campaign accounts; actions that would certainly be noted. While Jackley was already running, Noem had to make a rather historic announcement to the state that she was “all in.”
Noem’s announcement had a cascade effect, triggering others’ interest in the race for her seat. There is speculation that Neal Tapio may make an immediate attempt to jump into a run for the office after his election to the State Senate. And Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, who is ending her second year of a four-year term in office is also rumored to be engaging consultants as she prepares a campaign for the office.
While some are still in the murky territory of rumor, shortly after Noem’s announcement, Dusty Johnson, a former Public Utilities Commissioner and Chief of Staff for Governor Daugaard, made official his intended bid for Noem’s Congressional seat.
More rumors abound on constitutional office seekers in 2018, and arguably all of the 2018 activity may be related to item #3 on our list – the decline of the South Dakota Democrat Party.
With no viable candidates at the statewide level in 2016, the years’ races were a foregone conclusion, providing little excitement because of an uncertain outcome. We all knew that John Thune would be US Senator, and Kristi Noem would be our Congresswoman. It was a done deal back when the candidate petition filings were complete.
Whereas 2018 offers battles where no one knows who the victor may be. And that’s a lot more interesting thing to ponder.