South Dakota: Imagine There’s No Parties

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… 

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

John Lennon

Cursor_and_amendment_v_south_dakota_-_Google_SearchWhen I heard about the constitutional amendment on the South Dakota ballot to make all
state elections nonpartisan, I thought of these lyrics.

Imagine there’s no parties?

Believe it or not, that’s sort of what South Dakota is debating this fall.   At first blush, it struck me as every bit as unlikely and impractical as what John Lennon sang.  But if Amendment V gets a plurality of votes from South Dakotans of all party affiliations this fall, every state office would become nonpartisan.

That means that in every election except for presidential contests there would no longer be separate primaries for the respective political parties, party labels would not be used on ballots, and citizens would no longer have their voting restricted due to their party affiliation, or lack of a party affiliation. Instead of party primaries, a single primary contest would be held, and the top two finishers, regardless of their party affiliations, would face off in the general election.

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“Imagine there’s no parties. It isn’t hard to do.”

Partisanship Pros

Except that it is hard for me. Very hard. While municipal and judicial elections currently don’t use party labels, I like having party labels on ballots. They give me helpful shorthand clues when I come across an unfamiliar name towards the end of the ballot.  For instance, if I want to avoid inadvertently casting my vote for someone who wants to underfund public services or weaken environmental protections, seeing that “D” next to a candidate name on the ballot reduces the chance that I will mistakenly vote for someone who doesn’t share my  values.

To be sure, party labels don’t tell you everything, but they give a pretty solid clue about a candidate’s likely positions. I support disclosure in government and governing, and requiring party labels has disclosure benefits.

If party labels weren’t on the ballot, I’d have to do more homework to avoid making voting blunders on the more obscure portions of the ballot.  On the other hand, with online resources that are now available, homework has never been easier.  By the way, this problem could be lessened if all state and local governments allowed citizens to use smart phones or other types of computers while voting. That’s an antiquated rule that needs to be changed.  I need to be able to use my spare brain in the voting booth.

Imagine A Nonpartisan System

Maybe the inconvenience and lack of disclosure associated with a nonpartisan election system would be worth it.  I am painfully aware of what extreme partisanship is doing to our politics. It’s making us mindlessly tribal. It’s causing legislators to substitute logic and analysis for blind loyalty to party leaders and their most powerful interest groups. It’s muting the voices of independent and moderate citizens who don’t identify with either of the major parties. It’s making compromise almost impossible.

Drey Samuelson, one of the founders of the South Dakota public interest group championing Amendment V, TakeItBack.org, feels strongly that the benefits of nonpartisan elections and offices greatly outweigh whatever disclosure-related benefits there might be associated with the status quo.

Imagine no closed door caucus scheming.  Samuelson says one of the most compelling reasons to keep party labels off the ballot is that it removes partisan control from the Legislature, as it has in Nebraska. Party caucuses don’t exist in the Nebraska Legislature, so policy isn’t made behind closed party caucus doors.

Party caucuses aren’t banned by Amendment V.  But Samuelson said that if the nonpartisan amendment passes in South Dakota this fall, there would be strong public pressure for South Dakota legislators to organize themselves in a nonpartisan way — without party caucus meetings and with party power-sharing — as Nebraska has done.

Imagine sharing power and accountability.  In Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature, legislators from both parties can and do become legislative committee chairs. Because they share power, they also share credit for legislative successes, and accountability for scandals. There is less time and energy wasted on blame games.

Imagine an equal voice for all.  TakeItBack.org also stresses that a nonpartisan system will give South Dakota’s 115,000 registered Independents an equal voice in the elections and government they fund, which they lack today.  This is particularly important in primary elections, where many of the most important decisions are made.

Imagine a popular Legislature.  A nonpartisan Legislature would also very likely be a more popular Legislature.

“People, by and large, don’t like the division, the bickering, the polarization, and the inefficiency of partisan government,” says Samuelson. “They find that nonpartisan government simply functions better.”

In fact, the nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature is nearly twice as popular as the partisan one to the north. A January 2016 PPP survey of South Dakotans found a 36% approval rating for the South Dakota Legislature, while a June 2015 Tarrance Group survey of Nebraskans found a 62% approval rating for the Nebraska Legislature.

A 62% approval rating should look pretty good to Minnesota legislators.  Minnesota DFL legislators have a 29% approval rating, and Republican legislators have an 18% approval rating (PPP, August 2015).

For my part, I’d be willing to give up partisan labels on the ballot if it would get us a less petty, Balkanized and recalcitrant Legislature.   If Nebraska is predictive of what Minnesota could become, the benefits of such a nonpartisan body would outweigh the costs.

Is South Dakota About To Lead An Anti-Gerrymandering Revolution?

I adore my home state of South Dakota, but I rarely find myself calling for my adopted state of Minnesota to copy South Dakota policies. On a whole range of issues from progressive state income taxes to a higher minimum wage to LGBT rights to dedicated conservation spending to teacher pay to Medicare coverage, I wish the Rushmore state’s policies would become more like Minnesota’s, not vice versa.

But if a majority of South Dakota voters embrace Amendment T at the polls this November, I may soon be feeling some serious SoDak envy.

gerrymander_-_Google_SearchOnce every ten years, all states redraw state and congressional legislative district lines, so that the new boundaries reflect population changes that have occurred in the prior decade. In both Minnesota and South Dakota, elected state legislators draw those district map lines, and the decision-making is dominated by leaders of the party or parties in power.

South Dakota’s pending Amendment T calls for a very different approach. If a majority of South Dakota voters support Amendment T this fall, redrawing of legislative district lines would be done by a multi-partisan commission made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents.  None of the nine commission members could be elected officials.

South_Dakota_Amendment_TThe basic rationale behind Amendment T is this: Elected officials have a direct stake in how those district boundaries are drawn, so giving them the power to draw the maps can easily lead to either the perception or reality of self-serving shenanigans.

As we all know, redistricting shenanigans are common. Guided by increasingly high tech tools and lowbrow ethics, elected officials regularly produce contorted district maps that draw snickers and gasps from citizens.   Often, the judicial branch needs to intervene in an attempt to restore partisan or racial fairness to the maps that the politicians’ produce.

Gerrymandering and Polarization

There are all kinds of problems created by the elected officials’ self-serving gerrymandering.  Legislators in control of the process draw lines to ensure that the gerrymanderer’s party has a majority in as many districts as possible. This leads to many “safe districts,” where one party dominates.  In safe districts, the primary election is effectively the only election that matters. General elections become meaningless, because the winner of the primary elections routinely cruises to an easy victory.

In this way, disproportionately partisan primary voters, who some times make up as little as 5 percent of the overall electorate, effectively become kingmakers who decide who serves in legislative bodies. Meanwhile, minority party and independent voters effectively have almost no say in the choice of lawmakers, even though they usually combine to make up more than 50% of the electorate.

In other words, gerrymandering has given America government of, for and by 5 percent of the people.

Because these primary election kingmakers tend to be from the far ends of the ideological spectrum, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of our politics. It has created an environment in which elected officials live in fear that they will be punished in primary elections if they dare to compromise with the other party. As a result, bipartisan compromise has become increasingly extinct in many legislative bodies.

Gerrymandering and Distrust

Beyond political polarization, perhaps the worst thing about politician-driven redistricting is that it makes citizens cynical about their democracy.  Whether you believe problems are real or merely perceived, the fact that elected officials are at the center of redistricting controversies creates deep citizen-leader distrust.  When citizens become convinced that elections are being rigged by elected officials so that the politicians can preserve their personal power, citizens lose faith and pride in their representative democracy. When we lose that, we lose our American heart and soul.

So Minnesota, let’s commit to creating — either via a new state law or by referring a constitutional amendment to voters –our own multi-partisan redistricting commission that removes elected officials from the process. Let’s govern more like South Dakota!

Did I really just say that?

Dear South Dakota: Lighten Up

5_reasons_to_still_get_excited_for_Paul_McCartney__besides_the_obvious__-_StarTribune_comSouth Dakota is feeling under-loved, again. A South Dakota state senator wrote a commentary in today’s Star Tribune complaining about the newspaper’s preview of Paul McCartney’s two Target Center concerts. The forlorn headline says it all: “Gee, did you have to slam South Dakota again?”

It seems the mulleted Beatle began his Midwest tour in Sioux Falls, which prompted the Strib’s music critic to do what music critics do for a living, get snarky. “For once, you may envy the folks who live in Sioux Falls,” wrote the Strib’s Chris Riemenschneider.  This prompted South Dakota State Senator Bernie Hunhoff to do what South Dakota politicians do for a living, get defensive.

Actually, Hunhoff’s piece was pretty light-hearted and fun, a welcome change from much of what we often hear in these tiresome “border battles.”  But along with the humor, there was hurt.  Oh yes, there was hurt.

We midwesterners as a group tend to be mighty sensitive when we feel someone has disrespected us. For instance, remember all of the rage a while back about Minnesota’s Red Lake County being named the Ugliest County in America? Judging from the heated reactions, one might have thought the Washington Post and the evil authors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Amenities Index had launched nuclear weaponry at poor little Minnesota.

But when it comes to sensitivity, South Dakota is in a league of its own.  As a South Dakota expat, and Wry Wing’s South Dakota Correspondent, I would make this observation: Among easily offended Midwesterners, South Dakotans are among the most easily aggrieved. Perhaps it’s because South Dakota is one of the most flown over portions of Flyover Country.  Perhaps it’s because former Governor South Dakota Bill Janklow long ago popularized the art of promoting himself by continually creating new platforms where he could defend South Dakota’s honor.  Whatever the reasons, many South Dakotans still spend their lives looking for ways that outsiders are not sufficiently appreciating South Dakota’s awesomeness.

To be certain, there is awesomeness to be had there. Like most states, parts of South Dakota have great natural beauty. Like most states, there are fun and interesting places to eat, drink and see. Like most states, there are friendly, diligent and kind people.  I loves me some South Dakota.

South_Dakota_low_taxes_-_Google_SearchIn fact, now that retirement is a decade or so away, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world for my South Dakota-born wife and I to take our thousandaire fortune and retire closer to our South Dakota family and friends. After all, lots of old folks retire there to shield their income from taxes, since South Dakota has no income tax.

But actually, that is precisely why I won’t be retiring in South Dakota, and will be staying in Minnesota. As a committed liberal, I realize that the seamy side of scarce taxes is scarce community services.

I don’t want to live in a place with the lowest paid teachers in the nation, and one of the region’s lower rates of health coverage. I don’t want to live in a place populated with so many taxophobes that bitter community civil wars break out every time someone proposes addressing a community need or creating a community amenity. I love South Dakota, but I don’t love the short-sighted taxophobic culture that has come to limit the place.

But back to McCartneygate. First, let me apologize for Mr. Riemenschneider’s snark. I’m sorry he showed disrespect to South Dakota. Though truthfully it didn’t strike me as much of a diss, particularly considering he is a music critic, rest assured that most Minnesotans like and respect South Dakota.  They really do.

Second, I would urge my home state to lighten up a bit. Shrug things off.  Have thicker skins.  Be confident enough in what you have to offer the world that you don’t feel the need to be constantly in grievance mode. Realize that you have enough to offer that you don’t have to engage in a fiscal race-to-the-bottom with the Mississippi’s of the world.  You also don’t have to run desperate Tokyo Rose-like ad campaigns on Minnesota conservative talk radio stations recruiting taxophobic businesses and individuals to relocate there.

South Dakota doesn’t need more civic paranoia. It doesn’t need to recruit more selfish taxophobes. It’s a terrific state populated by wonderful people who love the place deeply. As Sir Paul told South Dakotans a few days ago, “with a love like that, you know you should be glad.” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

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Note:  This post also was published as part of MinnPost’s weekly Blog Cabin feature.

Dear DFLers: This is Minnesota, Not MinneSweden

These are very heady times for Minnesota DFLers. Governor Mark Dayton and DFL legislators had the courage to raise taxes, increase long-term investments, and raise the minimum wage.  In the process, Minnesota Republicans were proven wrong, because the economic sky did not fall as they predicted it would.   In fact, liberally governed Minnesota, with an unemployment rate of just 3.7 percent, has one of the stronger economies in the nation.

And the subsequent coverage from the liberal echo chamber has been positively intoxicating for DFLers:

“This Billionaire Governor Taxed the Rich and Increased the Minimum Wage — Now, His State’s Economy Is One of the Best in the Country” (Huffington Post)

“The Unnatural: How Mark Dayton Bested Scott Walker—and Became the Most Successful Governor in the Country”  (Mother Jones)

“What happens when you tax the rich and raise the minimum wage? Meet one of USA’s best economies” (Daily Kos)

Comparative_Economic_Systems__SwedenHigh as a kite from these clippings and the vindication they represent, DFLers run the risk of over-stepping, of pushing Minnesotans further than it they are comfortable going. As much as DFL politicians fantasize about bringing the social welfare model of a Scandinavian nation to a state populated with so many Scandinavian immigrants, a recent survey in the Star Tribune provides a harsh reminder that Minnesota, politically speaking, is not MinneSweden.

In the wake of a $2 billion budget surplus, only one out of five (19 percent) Minnesotans wants to “spend most to improve services.” Among the Independent voters that DFLers need to persuade in order to win elections and legislative power, only one out of four (24 percent) supports spending the entire surplus.

At the same time, two times as many Minnesotans support the predictable Republican proposal to “refund most to taxpayers” (38 percent support). Their refund proposal is also the most popular option among the Independent voters that Republicans need to win over in order to have electoral success in 2016.

The Star Tribune also reported that their survey found that Minnesotans are not too wild about the gas tax increase the DFLers propose.  A slim majority (52 percent) oppose “Governor Dayton’s proposal to raise the wholesale tax on gasoline to increase spending on road and bridge projects?”  A healthier majority (62 percent) of Minnesota’s’s Independents oppose the gas tax increase.

I happen to agree with the DFL on the merits.  Minnesota has a lot of hard work to do in order to remain competitive into the future, so I personally support investing almost all of the budget surplus, with a healthy amount for the rainy day fund, and a gas tax increase. However at the same time, I’m enough of a realist to recognize that sustainable progressive change won’t happen if Daily Kos-drunk DFLers overstep and lose the confidence of swing voters in the process.

DFLers who want to win back the trust of a majority of the Minnesota electorate would be wise to enact a mix of sensibly targeted investments, a resilient rainy day fund and targeted tax relief.  That kind of pragmatic, balanced approach won’t turn into St. Paul into Stockholm, but it might just put more DFLers in power, so that the DFL can ensure Republicans don’t turn Minnesota into South Dakota or Wisconsin.

Ad Agency Self-Gratification

South_Dakota_Yanks_‘Don_t_Jerk___Drive’_Campaign_--_NYMagA lot of us got a chuckle out of news that South Dakota public safety officials had launched, and abruptly aborted, a public education campaign about erratic driving practices. In case you missed it, the ad campaign used a double entendre– “don’t jerk and drive” — to caution South Dakota drivers to avoid jerking vehicle steering wheels too abruptly.  In the unlikely event that you don’t follow the entendre, think naughty and adolescent.

Entirely predictably, the residents of this no-nonsense midwestern state populated with plenty of senior citizens, religious people and conservatives didn’t appreciate the gag. After hearing from them, the state’s Department of Public Safety quickly jerked the campaign.

“I decided to pull the ad,” Trevor Jones, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement. “This is an important safety message, and I don’t want this innuendo to distract from our goal to save lives on the road.”

Equally predictably, the ad industry is now indignant that their cleverness has not been sufficiently appreciated by shallow-minded outsiders. Ad Week opines:

The campaign, from Lawrence & Schiller in Sioux Falls, was apparently getting great visibility—outperforming previous public safety campaigns 25 to 1 in terms of driving traffic to the DPS’s social media channels, according to the Argus Leader.

Maybe it’s the DPS who overcorrected here.

Ah yes, the familiar rejoinder of seemingly every ad agency who has ever embarrassed their client. “But look at all the attention it got?!”

Wrong Kind of Attention Generated

If simple campaign gag awareness were the only goal of ads, advertising would be pretty easy. One would only need to slap naughty or outrageous images and/or references into ads, and watch the social media sharing spike, for all the wrong reasons.

This agency was paid to get South Dakota drivers to focus on erratic driving. Through a flurry of campaign-related discussion over the last few days, I heard no one talking about the nature of the problem of erratic driving.  I heard no one talking about the specifics about how to do better. Instead, I heard tons of tee-heeing about masturbation. I heard angry ranting about stupid, naive and wasteful government officials. I heard debates about whether this was good or bad advertising.

That’s attention, but it’s the wrong kind of attention.  All of those those topics distract and detract from the intended mission-oriented message.

Wrong Tone For This Sponsor

Beyond spotlighting the public service message, another goal of the ad agency should be to enhance, or at least maintain, the long-term credibility of their client as a messenger and recipient of public funding. After all, if a campaign causes an ad sponsor to become less credible or funded, they lose their future ability to pursue the public education parts of their mission.

In this case, the ad agency’s ads caused the DPS, and South Dakota state government in general, to be ridiculed by the taxpayers and policymakers they rely on to fund their current and future operations. So, the agency failed their client on that level too.

It’s obviously a very different situation if an agency’s client has a brand that is provocative and edgy by design, such as Abercrombie, Axe, or Armnai. But the tonality needs of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety could hardly be more different than the tonality needs of those brands.  Lawrence & Schiller probably wishes DPS was a more edgy client, but ad agencies get the clients they are handed, not the clients they wish for.

Appealed to Wrong Audiences

Sure, some loved the campaign. And if South Dakota were a state dominated by adolescents, irreverent hipsters, ad industry employees, or Europeans (because we are constantly being reminded by ad industry folks that the Europeans aren’t nearly as repressed and humorless as Americans), “don’t jerk and drive” would have been a brilliant approach.

But the population of South Dakota looks a little different than that.  Again, ad agencies get the target audience they are handed, not the target audience they wish for.  And frankly, for an ad agency to act otherwise is nothing more than, well, self-gratification.

The Three S’s Of How Democrat Weiland Could Win The SD Senate Seat This Fall

Could a progressive Democrat really win the U.S. Senate seat in a bright red state that gave Mitt Romney 58% of the vote?

Maybe, because of an unprecedented aligning of the political stars.  Democratic South Dakota Senate candidate Rick Weiland is within 6 points of defeating  former Republican Governor Mike Rounds.  Remarkably, the extremely well-known former Governor Rounds has remained stuck for months at just 40 percent support.

If Weiland can remind moderates and progressives that former GOP U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, who is currently trying to sweet talk non-conservatives, has an extremely conservative voting record, Weiland could win the seat with under 45 percent of the vote.  Because independent candidates’ support typically shrinks in the closing days of a campaign, peeling away Pressler’s non-conservative support is certainly within Weiland’s grasp.

In South Dakota?  How could that be?  There are three primary reasons:

  • Pressler_Reagan_BushSEGMENTATION.  First, there’s simple electoral math.  There are three prominent conservative GOP officeholders  on the November ballot — a former GOP state legislator with Tea Party support (Gordon Howie), former GOP Governor (Mike Rounds) and former GOP U.S. Senator (Larry Pressler).  That divides South Dakota conservatives in three, which is thrice as nice for the lone Democrat on the ballot.
  • Rick_Weiland_311_townsSHOE-LEATHER.  Second, by all accounts Weiland is running circles around his opponents.  In recent months, Rick “Everywhere Man” Weiland became the first candidate in South Dakota history to campaign in all 311 South Dakota towns, many of them multiple times.  In a state with only a few hundred thousand voters, those personal connections, and the work ethic they represent, matter.  Meanwhile the embattled Rounds has been jetting around the nation raising money from wealthy non-South Dakotans, and staying away from debates, while the long-retired Pressler has kept his nostalgia tour on a relatively leisurely schedule.
  • Rick_Weiland_EB-5_adSCANDAL.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is something called EB-5. EB-5 is a federal program that lets wealthy foreign businesspeople cut to the front of the green card line, if they fork over a half million dollars to a local business venture.    The “auctioning citizenship” aspect of EB-5 is extremely unpopular in itself, and Rounds administered South Dakota’s version of EB-5 in a way that allowed a Rounds supporter to run the program, hire himself to profit from the program that he was running, and screw up the program in ways that are incompetent at best and criminal at worst.  The result:  State and federal investigations, a steady stream of news media probing and red hot criticism from politicians of all parties, all aimed at the besieged Rounds.

For Democrats desperate for U.S. Senate electoral wins in a tough political environment, it’s quite possible that this equation could work:  Segmentation + Shoe-leather + Scandal = Senate Seat.  It could happen, if Weiland is able to raise enough money to get his message out and defend himself down the home stretch.

– Loveland

Billionaire Purchases Naming Rights To Uninsured South Dakotans

Sioux Falls, South Dakota — South Dakota billionaire banker and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford announced today that he will fund free health coverage for 48,000 uninsured, low-income South Dakotans.  The announcement comes in the wake of Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard’s continued refusal to accept $224 million in federal funding to cover the same group of citizens.

In recent years, Sanford has been lauded for donating large amounts of money to South Dakota health facilities, sports complexes, and other popular projects.   The high interest banker often has his projects named after him, such as Sanford Health™, Sanford Children’s™, Sanford Heart™,  Sanford Medical School™, Sanford Pentagon™, Sanford Sports Complex™, and Denny Sanford Premier Center™.

Sanford’s latest donation comes in the midst of a bitter political debate that has been intensifying in South Dakota for several years.

As part of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), sometimes called Obamacare, about 48,000 low income South Dakotans are eligible for Medicaid coverage.  By the year 2020, South Dakota was to have received a massive influx of $224 million due to this expansion of coverage.

Medicaid_ExpansionHowever Governor Daugaard has refused the $224 million to cover uninsured poor people, citing his  personal opposition to Obamacare and the cost of the expansion that would be paid by South Dakota.  The federal government is paying 100 percent of the total costs through 2016, and 90 percent after that.

The neighboring states of Iowa, North Dakota, and Minnesota are all expanding Medicaid coverage to uninsured citizens, while Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming are not.  States that are opting out of the program will leave over 5 million of the poorest Americans without basic health benefits, or shifting their health care costs to other citizens.

Under pressure from South Dakota physicians and 63% of South Dakotans who support the Medicaid expansion, Daugaard recently asked the federal government to cover a little over half of the eligible citizens, but deny coverage to the rest of eligible citizens. The federal government rejected Daugaard’s proposal, leaving all 48,000 South Dakotans without coverage.  The Legislature  refused to allow the Medicaid expansion question to be posed to South Dakota voters at the ballot box.

But Sanford stepped into the fray today, announcing that he is creating a new Medicaid-like health plan, which he is calling SanfordCare™.  Any South Dakota citizen who would have been eligible for the Obamacare expansion would be eligible for the free SandfordCare™ coverage, provided they agree to legally change their surnames to Sanford™.  Any children born while under the health coverage would also have to adopt the first name Denny™ or Denita™.

Note:  This post is, to the best of our knowledge, satire.  There is no SanfordCare proposal, but there are 48,000 South Dakotans being denied health coverage.

Why Aren’t Healthy, Wealthy and Wise Minnesotans Happier?

The news media loves state rankings and report cards.  A constant array of news stories continually lets states know how well they’re keeping up the with the Jones’s in their national neighborhood.

This coverage often leads to the vigorous debates between political activists and leaders about which ratings matter most?  Many conservatives prefer measures such as “best business climate,” “most free,” “most religious,” and “lowest taxes.”  Many liberals covet measures such as “healthiest,” “best educated,” “best quality of life,” or “best child wellness.”

Who is right?  Nobody and everybody, of course.  It depends on what each individual values most in life.

That’s why the ultimate state ranking is Gallup’s Life Evaluation Index, which measures the proportion of a state’s citizens that self-report that they are “thriving.” I like this measure, because it focuses on happiness bottom lines, not the variables that research designers speculate are the ingredients for happiness. Continue reading