Monthly Archives: September 2013

Highly recommended reading: Randell Beck, newspaperman

With the retirement of Randell Beck as publisher of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader shall come another change in the executive management of the Gannett property. He and Maricaroll Kueter, a long-time Argus newsroom leader who succeeded Randell as editor five years ago, put together and kept together a very strong reporting and editing staff amid some very difficult times for Gannett and much of the newspaper profession. They lost some strong older talent and they shed some other talent. To read today’s column by Randell Beck:

Brendan Johnson argues against sequestration

Brendan Johnson, the U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota, distributed an op-ed column Friday night in which he makes his case against sequestration. He said the automatic budget cuts forced a $1.5 billion reduction in the combined budgets of federal law enforcement agencies including federal prisons in the 2013 federal fiscal year that ends Monday. The impact for 2014 will be $2.1 billion. Johnson, the son of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, said that more than 3,200 U.S. Department of Justice employees have been eliminated since the January 2011 start of a hiring freeze. He said USDOJ faces unpaid furlough days in 2014 and unpaid furloughs were avoided this year through spending reserve funds. He said nationwide the 94 U.S. attorney offices collected $13.1 billion through criminal and civil actions in 2012, which he said is six times the costs for those offices. He said he’ll be losing several of the most experienced agents in his South Dakota office and likely won’t be able to refill the slots. He said the vacancy rate in his office “will soon be approaching 20 percent.” He concluded by arguing that sequestration’s effects on law enforcement in South Dakota will reduce federal revenue and damage public safety. “That type of cut is not wise or effective,” he said.

LRC: “Clean-up on floor three”

The Legislature’s Executive Board wanted change, and change is indeed happening at the highest ranks of the non-partisan, professional staff of the Legislative Research Council. Jim Fry came to work Wednesday as director and left unemployed after he resigned and was told to leave that same day. He is 65. Fred Schoenfeld, the chief fiscal analyst, was prepared to retire June 8, 2014, and instead has been promoted in an interim role as director. That gets the Legislature through the 2014 session while a new director is hired. Schoenfeld is 74. In his final hours as director, Fry told members of the Executive Board that Reuben Bezpaletz, the LRC’s chief analyst for research and legal services, will retire after the 2014 session and the search has started for a successor who will shadow Bezpaletz during the session. He has been with LRC all of his 44-year career. Nearly all members of the research and legal staff are in their late 50s or older, and they have been in their jobs or elsewhere in state government since the mid-1980s (or earlier).

Back in April 2008, (time flies, eh?), Rep. David Lust wrote a guest piece for the Rapid City Journal in which he supported term limits for legislators. Lust, R-Rapid City, acknowledged he would support longer limits than those adopted by South Dakota voters in 1992 of four consecutive elected terms (eight years) in the same chamber (House or Senate), but he said the LRC was the reason that term limits were and would continue to be good for South Dakota. In that paragraph, he wrote:

“The importance of retaining ‘institutional knowledge’ is often mentioned as a reason for repealing term limits. However, the Legislative Research Council is the primary repository of institutional knowledge for the S.D. Legislature. New and veteran legislators regularly consult the LRC in formulating ideas and drafting legislation. More often than not a proposed bill has been explored by past legislatures (both in and out of South Dakota), and the LRC provides immediate and extensive information about it. Given the presence and purpose of the LRC, the argument that we need legislators with vast stores of legislative knowledge is exaggerated.”

Jim Fry said his job stopped being fun three years ago. That was an interesting time for the Legislature. The Senate saw the departures of veterans such as Republican leaders Dave Knudson of Sioux Falls and Bob Gray of Pierre, and newly-elected Gov. Dennis Daugaard called — alone, at first — for 10 percent cuts throughout much of state government, twice as deep as outgoing Gov. Mike Rounds had proposed. The 2010 election also marked the arrival of Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, who brought a different style to the House and in 2012 accused House Republican leaders of conspiring against members. A resolution that contained the word astrological somehow slipped through. Eventually a special investigation was called, run by then-Sen. Joni Cutler, R-Sioux Falls, and over some long hours a lot of laundry was put on the political clothes-line in public testimony.

What’s happened in the past three years is a trend toward more and more secrecy among Republican legislators especially in the House and Senate leadership. One of the complaints against the LRC in the current review was the refusal to send LRC analysts to deliver briefings and answer questions in closed Republican caucuses.  The best example of the secrecy in terms of legislation was the bill creating the South Dakota Jobs programs during the 2013 session. That legislation reached far and ultimately might be very good for South Dakota, but it was formed almost entirely in secret and in some ways over the objections of the Daugaard administration. The latest example of how the secrecy works was the LRC review process that spun to its conclusion Wednesday. There is a public report, but it wasn’t distributed to most Executive Board members until the morning of the meeting and wasn’t shared beforehand to the rank and file of representatives and senators. Less than half of the 105 legislators completed the survey tool used by the National Conference of State Legislatures reviewers. The majority of time spent by Executive Board members on the staffing matters happened in executive session. One of the recommendations from NCSL is to change state law to specifically say a two-thirds majority of the board or majorities in each of the House and Senate can vote to remove the LRC director. That clearly puts the director under the control of the Legislature’s majority party. There is more than one avenue to a more-partisan LRC staff.

Lucas further pursues salary increase for legislators

Sen. Larry Lucas, D-Pickstown*, asked the Legislature’s Executive Board again today about establishing a pay raise for legislators. They currently receive an annual salary of $6,000. He said the concept would be less political if the board introduced the bill rather than a single legislator. “About $9,400 is where we should be at today,” Rep. Charlie Hoffman, R-Eureka, said. He said #3,400 would bring Legislature to parity since last raise. He used a 5 percent inflation factor. Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, said there are major challenges to deal with in the Legislative Research Council office after the resignation of Jim Fry and interim appointment of Fred Schoenfeld as director of LRC. “I’m not sure this committee has time to be dealing with that right now,” Brown said. “This day has been an important day,” added Sen. Phyllis Heineman, R-Sioux Falls. She said the board should focus on the management and performance audit report’s recommendations. House Speaker Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, lent his support, saying the time is bad right now to discuss this issue.  No vote was taken on Lucas’ suggestion.

* — Lucas confirmed today he has moved to Pickstown. He previously lived at Mission. His wife, Debera, is the new superintendent of the Andes Central school district. The couple previously worked in the Todd County school district.

BREAKING: Jim Fry resigns from LRC

Jim Fry, 65, submitted his letter of resignation this morning to the Legislature’s Executive Board. Fry has been director of the Legislative Research Council, the non-partisan professional staff of the Legislature, since 2000. The board’s chairman, Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, read the letter of resignation to open the board’s meeting. The board is discussing the outside review of the LRC, ordered by the board, by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Excerpt from conclusion of Legislature’s review report

The Legislature’s Executive Board is receiving today the National Conference of State Legislature management and performance audit of the Legislative Research Council. The board oversees the LRC, which has been headed by director Jim Fry, 65, since 2000. Here is an important excerpt from the 55-page report’s conclusion:

“Term limits, rapidly evolving technology and other trends have impacted the legislative workplace and altered the demands and expectations that legislators have of LRC staff. Unfortunately, the LRC has not kept pace with this changing landscape and the quality and responsiveness of some of its services have suffered. The Legislature’s Executive Board and legislative leaders also have missed opportunities to set clear objectives for LRC staff and enforce accountability when LRC services and performances have not met expectations.”

The board’s chair three years ago was Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton. The past two years the chairman was Rep. Chuck Turbiville, R-Deadwood, who no longer is in the Legislature. The current chair is Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel.

Here is a snapshot story I sent to the newspapers for which I report:

XNSLegislativeReviewReportFiled for 9-25-13 PMs and Webs

DENR puts Powertech-hearing audio on Internet

Care about the state Board of Minerals and Environment’s proceedings on the Powertech uranium-mining permit application?

Go to this spot:

That’s where you can find audio from the hearing after each day’s proceedings. I tried the link. The connection takes a bit of time but the recording is clear.

This is a good step by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in regard to openness. It’s also a permanent audio record.

Will NCSL review of Legislature tell a tough story?

We hear today through the legislative grapevines there is plenty of room for improvement in the Legislature’s operations, according to the findings made in the independent review conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures team. The 35-page draft report will be discussed tomorrow (Wednesday) by the Legislature’s Executive Board. The board requested the review. The board’s chairman, Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, declined this afternoon to share his advance copy with this reporter — I only wanted it for an hour! — but he said it will be a don’t-miss meeting tomorrow. Other legislators have been promising they’ll have some things to say once the report becomes public.