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42 Days to Election Day: South Dakota

With Senatorial or Gubernatorial races on the ballot, attention will be on the presidential and lone House seat race along with the ballot questions.

As far as the race for President goes, this is generally a safe Republican state and should be again in 2012. Thus, we can give Romney their three electoral votes.

Republican Kristi Noem, a rising star in the GOP, will face off against Matt Varilek on the Democratic side. He is a former staff member for Democratic Senator Tim Johnson. In 2010, Noem defeated Democratic incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, by far a more formidable opponent than Varilek is this year. However, it was a wave election year for Republicans and Noem only won by 3 percentage points, so Democrats believe they see a chance here. Thus far, Varilek has focused on Noem’s Agriculture Committee membership. Specifically, he cites the fact that she seldom asks questions, has not represented the state adequately, and has even missed an inordinate number of meetings. He has also resorted to typical Democratic class warfare tactics saying that Noem supports tax breaks for millionaires and corporations and has forgotten about the middle class. The Democrats have targeted this race in their “Red to Blue” program, but thus far have pumped only about $50,000 in PAC money into the race compared with Noem’s over $780,000 in PAC contributions. Hence, she has a tremendous money advantage. That is, Republicans are pumping a lot of money into a race they know they need to win. Personally, I believe, considering that Noem defeated a better established incumbent in 2010, the voters are willing to give her a break when it comes to Varilek’s criticisms and reelect her to Congress.

There are seven questions on the ballot. The first would change the way proceeds from the cement plant trust fund are transferred to the general fund. In 2001, the $238 million fund paid out $12 million per year to the general fund. The change would mandate that 4%, not a set $12 million transfer, occur annually. A second question asks voters to change language regarding corporations in the state. As many have pointed out, the current laws are rather antiquated and interfere in such corporate governance as how stockholders can vote, restricts what they can receive for the issuance of stock, and restricts the amount of debt or stock a corporation can take on. In essence, they are asking voters to update these older constitutional prohibitions on how a legislature can write laws regarding corporations. And in a strange question, legislator travel reimbursement is constitutionally set at 5 cents a mile. This question would remove that mandate and allow the legislature itself to establish travel reimbursement amounts.

Beginning in 2013, 22% of the proceeds from the contractor excise tax are to be transferred to the Large Projects Fund which is administered by the state. The fund will then pay out economic development grants, with certain restrictions on what qualifies, as long as the project exceeds $5 million. This question asks voters to put breaks on this program since the possibility exists where grants can be awarded to certain projects that do not serve the public good, but that may help private developers. Opponents note that the Keystone Pipeline, that was to pass through South Dakota, would have received a grant for construction even though the pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, is more than able to build the pipeline without help from the state and the fact that it HAS to pass through the state is proof it does not warrant state aid. Opponents likewise point out that this would divert funds to “economic development” projects at a time the state cut back on educational funding. In other words, they argue that the money could be put to better use.

Although South Dakota does a good job balancing their budget year in and year out, they have no balanced budget requirements. Living in one of the many states with such provisions, one can safely say that balanced budget amendments do not really create “balanced budgets,” but they do provide plenty of opportunities for creative accounting. On one hand, I would think that if it isn’t broken, then why touch it? Conversely, one also needs to realize that Democrats can take over and spend or tax the state into bankruptcy.

The sixth question asks voters whether the state sales tax should be increased from 4% to 5%. While it is true that the state has not increased their sales tax since 1969, one needs to question the need now especially since the state realized $48 million in unanticipated revenues and has a surplus. According to proponents, the increased funds would be dedicated to Medicaid and education. For example, they argue that it would add $725 to per-pupil spending in the state while adding $70 million to Medicaid reimbursement rates. Like its neighbor to the north, South Dakota’s economy is certainly better than many other states. One can argue that is attributable to good and disciplined management of the state budget by the Republicans in the form of low taxes and other items. Thus, again, one needs to question why the need to “fix” something through taxation if it is not in need of fixing.

The final question asks the voters to veto (or negate) recent educational reforms made by the legislature. Of course, it is the teacher unions who are behind this effort. Those reforms created a teacher scholarship program and provided bonuses for math and science teachers. I have nothing against the art or gym teacher, but this is one means to attract qualified individuals with math and science degrees to the teaching profession. Existing teachers can even broaden their horizons through the scholarship program. Merit bonuses are another reform that teachers everywhere are against on the grounds that it creates disunity. That only begs the question: do teachers teach for unity amongst themselves or to improve the performance of their students? Another thing that gets in the craw of teacher unions are evaluations of their performance and attempts to standardize those evaluations. Employee performance evaluations are a mainstay in the private sector and large parts are tied to quantitative criteria. Teaching is no different. It always amazed me that instead of blustering about these things, did teacher unions ever sit down with the state, local school boards, and administration and try to work something that they all could agree on? Instead, the unions, in knee jerk fashion, just dismiss it out of hand. And finally, the reforms eliminated tenure. The teacher unions correctly argue that the word appears nowhere in current law. Instead, they parse words and work verbal tightropes and claim that they are “continuing contracts.” In reality, no matter how you characterize it, its tenure.

In conclusion: Romney takes South Dakota’s three electoral votes and Kristi Noem, the Republican incumbent, wins reelection.

Running totals thus far: Obama leads in electoral votes 78-19 while Democrats control the Senate 10-8. In the House, the Democrats likewise lead 49 seats to 30 seats for the Republicans.

Next: North Dakota

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