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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

May 20, 2019

Aberdeen American News, May 18

We should be better than IM 24

In last November’s election, 56 percent of South Dakota voters approved Initiated Measure 24.

The measure aims to restrict out-of-state contributions to South Dakota ballot question campaigns.

Earlier this year two lawsuits were filed to prevent IM 24 from becoming law — one by Aberdeen resident Cory Heidelberger and his political action committee, SD Voice, and the other by several lobbying groups.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles B. Kornmann heard testimony in both lawsuits on May 3 in Aberdeen. On May 9, he ruled that the measure “is unconstitutional because it violates First Amendment rights to engage in political speech and to associate with others to fund political speech” and “because it violates the Commerce Clause by interfering with the free flow of money between persons or entities from another state and ballot questions committees in South Dakota.”

The voters who approved of the measure must have thought it seemed like a good idea, and its appeal is understandable.

“Keep South Dakota issues decided by South Dakotans.” Sounds like a catchy slogan.

But here’s the thing: South Dakota issues are always decided by South Dakotans. That’s because they’re the only ones allowed to vote in our state elections.

Sure, the specter of vast amounts of out-of-state money from special interest groups being used to influence public opinion ahead of elections can seem frightening.

But we have to remember that no matter how many TV commercials, radio and newspaper ads, billboards and lawn signs flood our daily lives, it’s still your neighbor in the voting booth next to yours.

It’s the neighbor who clears snow off your driveway when you’re on vacation. It’s your neighbor who offers to help out or loan you a tool when you’re making a home repair. It’s the neighbor who brings food to your door when a loved one dies. It’s the neighbor whose kid walks to school with yours. It’s the neighbor who sits next to you in church, who serves with you on the PTA, who cheers alongside you at the football game, and who is your nurse when you go to the emergency room.

It’s everyone in your day-to-day life that you trust.

Do you really not trust them to sort through all the noise and make an informed decision on election day?

Perhaps some people think keeping out-of-state money out of our politics is just a good idea on principle, regardless of how much they trust their neighbors.

Speaking in support of IM 24 in a South Dakota Newspaper Association article last October, former-Gov. Dennis Daugaard compared the idea to federal election laws that prohibit influence from foreign governments.

It’s hard to believe that he would compare our fellow Americans to foreign agents. They are citizens with the right to speak their minds and contribute to the causes they support anywhere in the country. Furthermore, the laws we enact in South Dakota will affect citizens of other states while they are traveling and conducting business in our state, and therefore, they deserve a chance to speak their minds in our political processes.

As Kornmann’s ruling demonstrates, IM 24 violates some core principles on which our country is founded.

More than that, however, IM 24 contradicts the kind of values we should strive to embody.

We should be open to new ideas, regardless of their origins, and fairly evaluate their worth. We should work to foster a culture of inclusion in our state, making sure everyone knows they are heard and are welcome to contribute.

The last thing we should do is try to silence voices just because they are telling us something we don’t want to hear or are coming from outside the state.

That’s un-American.

And, frankly, it should be un-South Dakotan.

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Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, May 16

Downtown project failures test leadership

The basic structure and compact of city government is simple.

As taxpayers, we elect representatives to serve on a council that reflects our priorities and interests with an eye toward the long-term prosperity of Sioux Falls.

We also choose a mayor to serve as the city’s chief executive, working in partnership with the council to provide leadership and direction while overseeing the day-to-day operation of city government.

The relationship works best when these elected leaders keep taxpayers informed on the successes and failures of their initiatives — a much-ballyhooed buzzword known as transparency.

Successes are easy to talk about. It’s the failures that test the process.

Suffice it to say that the Village on the River project — which provided more than its share of drama this week — has failed in many respects. In fact, the largest public-private development project in Sioux Falls history has stumbled from the start.

There was early trouble in 2015 when the city and developers couldn’t reach an agreement to acquire the former Skelly’s Pub and Copper Lounge properties to build a mixed-use parking ramp with a hotel and commercial space downtown. The plan was scaled back and later scrapped.

That was under the mayoral stint of Mike Huether and community development direction of Darrin Smith, who left in the spring of 2016 to run the Washington Pavilion.

Huether’s team pursued the project anew the following year with Legacy Developments, but questions about the project persisted.

They gained steam after then-Legacy guarantor Aaron Hultgren’s construction company was implicated for safety violations surrounding the December 2016 downtown building collapse that killed a construction worker.

As an editorial board, we sided with city councilors who questioned the partnership with Legacy and called for openness regarding project investors. We asked why the city was so eager to do business with Legacy when questions of potential liability and even criminality shaded the effort.

“There will be zero conflicts of interest,” we heard from Smith’s replacement, Daren Ketcham, whose advocacy for Legacy was so impressive that the company hired him as their vice president in May of 2018.

Mayor Paul TenHaken had an opportunity to reverse course or at least shed more light on the process when he took office a year ago. Instead we learned last August that the $70 million Village on the River project would move forward with Aberdeen hotel developer Jeff Lamont as the point man rather than Legacy, with no financial documents offered to back up that claim.

“These twists and turns have put TenHaken in the difficult position of defending and stabilizing a project that he knows was handled poorly from the very beginning,” we wrote last August. “Rather than remove Legacy from the picture entirely, he and his staff are asking us to avert our eyes.”

The dam finally broke this week, when the Argus Leader reported that the private portion of the project was in trouble. Village River Group was looking to scale back plans for the hotel portion of the 15-story complex as questions swirled about performance bonds and missed payments.

TenHaken’s administration pulled the plug on the Village River Group on Tuesday, saying that the city would go ahead with a $21 million parking ramp and forego the hotel, retail, bars and restaurants that were part of the project originally slated to break ground this month.

They hastily added later that another developer could be found in the future, but it came off as damage control. Public confidence in an expensive and high-profile downtown project was all but lost, with bad news spilling over.

Taxpayers are likely to suffer a loss because the city paid a premium for the parking ramp to support a 15-story building. There are almost certainly lawsuits on the way, which is why City Hall quietly doubled its legal budget for dispute resolution to fortify itself for battles over breach of contract.

Meanwhile, Huether issued a statement distancing himself from the current mess, saying he has had “no influence nor control on what has evolved nor the ins and outs on this topic since I handed over the gavel to the mayor.”

Our guess is that it would be sorely tempting for TenHaken to respond to that sentiment, but he doesn’t have that luxury. The time for finger-pointing and “I told you so” has passed, though some city councilors will play that game.

Whether it’s fair or not, based on what came before him, this is TenHaken’s ballgame now. He’s in the hot seat and must work with the council to determine how to respond to this governing crisis and restore public confidence.

Attorneys are urging City Hall staff as well as councilors not to speak to the media — which basically means that they shouldn’t speak to the citizens of Sioux Falls. How has that strategy worked out so far?

If anything, it’s been a lack of effective communication that has most plagued this project from the start. This whole mentality that city leaders can only share positive news at back-slapping press conferences is a far cry from what transparency and public accountability is all about.

We understand the concern over private interests when development deals are struck. But when companies partner with public entities, with all the benefits that entails, they enter an agreement with taxpayers and lose some of their right to secrecy.

That should have been one of the takeaways from the South Dakota Supreme Court’s decision on the Premier Center settlement dispute — a victory for open government in a state that remains largely closed.

If the city changes nothing about its approach to public information after this downtown development debacle, we deserve our fate. The good news is that we’re smarter than that and have overcome challenges in the past, but it takes leadership.

In that respect, TenHaken is on the clock. Rather than huddling with legal teams and approving carefully worded statements, he needs to get out front.

It’s time for the citizens of Sioux Falls to receive a status report on where things stand. If that means conceding that mistakes were made along the way, it’s not exactly a major revelation at this point.

We understand that not every page of every contract is forthcoming, but the compact of city government calls for more than what we’ve been getting.

Leadership is not about hiding from adversity. It’s about looking people in the eye, laying out a plan for action and promising that such a confidence-killing calamity will never occur again, at least under your watch.

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Madison Daily Leader, Madison, May 16

AAA credit rating has local benefits

Gov. Kristi Noem announced this week that South Dakota’s AAA credit rating with Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s has been affirmed.

South Dakota has the highest rating available among such agencies. The rating is earned through sound financial management, reserve funds and a balanced budget.

We remember when Gov. Dennis Daugaard pushed for the state to achieve the AAA rating. There were a number of things to be done at the state level in order to achieve this.

Dakota State University in Madison has been one of the beneficiaries of the AAA rating. The bond issue for the Beacom building came under the AAA rating. Other bonds for dormitories and the Trojan Center expansion and renovation are revenue bonds, which benefit from the rating only indirectly.

The biggest beneficiary may be the South Dakota Housing Authority. That agency helps first-time homebuyers with relatively low interest rate mortgages. The program is a great start for South Dakotans who are just getting started in the housing market and provides substantial long-term benefits.

We are glad to see that S&P and Moody’s reaffirmed South Dakota’s AAA rating. Unless that rating changes, the fiscal management of South Dakota should pay benefits to many institutions and taxpayers for a long time.

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