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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

February 18, 2019

Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Feb. 4

Port Yankton: Back on the agenda

The Port Yankton dream is back, and this time, it has an even more compelling argument to make in its favor.

That’s not to say that having the Legislature give it the OK to put it before voters in 2020 is a slam dunk. And it sure doesn’t mean that those who opposed the idea last year won’t fight it again this winter.

But this time, there is a new component to it: devoting a majority of the revenue generated by the project to veterans’ causes.

Port Yankton is a proposed entertainment facility that would feature gambling, as well as a hotel and a convention center. The gambling component would be essential in order to generate sufficient revenue to make the project work.

The objective now is for local officials to get the state’s voters to amend South Dakota’s constitution and allow the issuance of one gaming license to a Yankton nonprofit entity, which would oversee the project.

The issue came before the Legislature last year and was promptly swatted down, thus killing any chance of putting the proposal before the voters last fall.

Officials with Yankton Area Progressive Growth (YAPG) then weighed their next move, which most figured would mean a statewide petition drive. It was announced that a poll would be conducted to gauge public sentiment on such a proposal.

But instead, a new legislative effort was introduced last week. It calls for two-thirds of the revenue to be devoted to veterans’ causes, which would be determined by the Legislature. The remaining third would go toward local historical and tourism development.

This seems to be a shrewd move. South Dakota is a state that a) has a lot of veterans, and b) annually wrestles with tight budgets and limited revenue sources. Combining these facts into the Port Yankton proposal can’t do anything but boost its prospects a bit.

The proposal would still also address the very real fact that a lot of money that people spend on gambling in this region is going to out-of-state casinos such as in Sioux City and Larchwood, Iowa, which both have gaming facilities literally on the border with South Dakota. That’s revenue that leaves this state for good.

As stated above, the introduction of the veterans’ element doesn’t guarantee anything in Pierre. There are still some people who will simply see it as the expansion of gambling and will oppose it on those grounds. Also, interests with the Deadwood casinos and the tribal casinos will also probably fight it again out of fear that Port Yankton would cut into their revenues. And some will argue that Port Yankton supporters should gather signatures like the Deadwood people had to do three decades ago to get this matter on the ballot.

But earmarking a large chunk of the potential revenue to aid veterans’ causes — and allowing the Legislature to determine how that would be done — gives this new proposal a little more allure, as Port Yankton would offer a benefit that Deadwood or the tribal casinos do not. (Deadwood revenue is designed to help in historic preservation, and the new Port Yankton proposal was reportedly crafted to resemble the Deadwood approach.)

Ultimately, it must be remembered that the proposal introduced last week in Pierre is not asking lawmakers to approve the nonprofit license for Port Yankton. Instead, it’s simply asking them to put it on the ballot and let the people decide.

Whether this new revenue approach will be enough to change some minds is not known. But it does make it more intriguing and more beneficial to the state as a whole. And with that, anything is possible.

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Madison Daily Leader, Madison, Feb. 14

Mid-session estimate is good news for S.D.

Establishing a budget for the state of South Dakota is quite a challenge. What makes it harder is that it’s a moving target.

Consider the schedule, in reverse: The state fiscal year starts each July 1. The legislative session a few months earlier produces the budget. The governor makes the first proposal in early December. State agencies such as the Board of Regents or Department of Transportation prepare their budgets in the summer or fall before that in order to get them to the governor’s office for consideration.

So those who prepare the original budgets are trying to predict all sorts of factors that will take place 12-24 months in the future. What is sales tax revenue going to be like? What will the demand be on prisons? Will federal funds come for roads, bridges and water systems? What will enrollments be in schools and universities?

All those factors are in flux through the process. Finally, the Legislature has to pass a budget.

The last variable to be established is an estimate of state tax revenue, which comes to the Legislature after more than half the session is complete. That day is today (Thursday).

The Joint Committee on Appropriations (on which District 8 Rep. Randy Gross sits) projects that state tax revenues will be slightly higher than they previously expected. It’s good news for the budget process overall.

In fact, it’s probably the best news. A big forecast change either way probably means the forecasting model isn’t very good. A projection of a decline in revenues, even if it’s slight, would squeeze many agencies and others who depend on state funding.

It appears as though there won’t be any budget fireworks this session, which we appreciate. It helps solidify South Dakota’s reputation for running its fiscal affairs appropriately.

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Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Feb. 15

No good reason to restrict absentee voting

It’s an enduring democratic principle to want as many people to vote who are inspired to vote, providing those ballots are cast legally.

Increasingly, that maxim stretches beyond those who enter a polling place on election day, extending to citizens who choose to submit their ballot through absentee or early voting.

More than 24 million votes were cast nationally in the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, up from about 13 million in 2014. In South Dakota, early voting accounted for 26 percent of all votes cast in 2018.

Whether this trend is a beacon of inclusive democracy or a threat to our way of life is a matter of perspective — or a measure of partisan politics.

Republican Lee Qualm, South Dakota’s House majority leader, has sponsored a bill that would shorten the state’s absentee voting period by about two weeks, meaning ballots could not be cast until the first Friday in October.

Qualm claims to be worried that the current system — in which absentee voting starts 46 days before election day — could prevent voters from gathering the most recent information before weighing in on candidates and ballot questions.

“I think it is about a better-informed electorate,” he said.

As magnanimous as that sounds, this Republican-led bill aligns with GOP efforts across the country aimed at making the process of voting more restrictive.

In North Dakota, voters were not allowed to cast ballots last November without a residential address, widely viewed as a plan to disenfranchise Native American reservation voters, many of whom rely on post office boxes.

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature reduced the number of early voting locations for 2018, just two years after a federal appeals court tossed out a similar law.

And in Wisconsin, a federal judge blocked a Republican-backed law in January that was aimed at shrinking the state’s early voting period to two weeks, arguing that it echoed a similar law struck down because it was enacted for partisan gain.

It makes sense for South Dakota Republicans, given their political stranglehold on the legislature and statewide offices, to want to preserve a more “traditional” voting process. The recent rise in absentee and early voting is viewed by some as open season for getting people to the polls who wouldn’t otherwise participate, many of them minorities who tend to vote Democrat.

Add to that list young people, with voters 18 to 29 increasing their early voting numbers from 2014 to 2018 in nearly every state. One national poll showed that 66 percent of those young voters favored Democrats over Republicans.

In other words, it’s not just about wanting to ensure that voters are fully informed, though that is a laudable goal. There’s also a desire to preserve the status quo by maintaining a high percentage of citizens casting their votes the old-fashioned way — at the ballot box on election day.

That thinking overlooks military members, snowbirds, vacationers and nursing home residents who rely on absentee voting and are accustomed to the 46-day window. State and county election officials make it clear that a condensed voting period would create issues with staffing and possibly run afoul of federal guidelines for military and overseas voters.

The thought of Minnehaha County being even more stressed with vote counting than normal is enough to give everyone pause regarding House Bill 1178, which passed out of committee by an 11-2 vote.

Lawmakers should consider if there is actual harm in the current window and whether they have sufficient justification to change it. If there is evidence of voter fraud that someone wants to bring forth, that would add steam to their argument.

In the absence of that, the crux of their position is that they want to create a more restrictive system when it comes to casting a ballot in South Dakota, making it more difficult for some citizens to participate in the most intrinsic of democratic processes.

The only rational response to that would be: Why?