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Chamber chief: Voters didn't believe arguments

David Owen, president of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, talks about the upcoming legislative session and the 2012 election Tuesday during a luncheon at The Depot in Mitchell. (Chris Huber/Republic)

A ballot issue that was defeated in the November election has the state chamber of commerce evaluating how to better communicate with voters. David Owen, president of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said voters didn't like Referred Law 14 but still believe in economic development, particularly when it affects local industries. He spoke at a Mitchell Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday at The Depot.

RL 14 would have created a Large Project Development Fund by taking 22 percent of contractors' excise tax revenues from the state general fund. Projects exceeding $5 million would have been eligible for refunds from the development fund.

Voters rejected the proposal Nov. 6.

"We lost the election because we couldn't prove these funds would make any difference," Owen said. "We've got to do a better job of showing the public what we do."

Owen said the chamber needs to work on boiling information down to phrasing people can understand, rather than political rhetoric.

He said the numbers given to the public regarding how much 23 affected South Dakota companies made, paid their employees and how many jobs were created were found to be unbelievable. He said over several years, 23 major companies in the state created 2,000 jobs, the average wage was $35,000 and the total payroll for all the companies was $65 million per year. The value-added agriculture companies, like ethanol and turkey plants, wrote checks for $200 million per year for raw materials.

"The biggest problem for the voters is they didn't believe us," he said.

He said these companies received tax refund dollars under a previous program for creating economic development in the state, but the public didn't see or understand how funds set aside specifically for large projects would work.

Owen said some other ballot issues, including one seeking additional sales taxes for schools and Medicaid providers, were defeated by voters because they didn't want increased taxes.

State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, attended the meeting along with about 30 other community officials. He said he hears constituents say they don't want the Legislature to take money from the general fund and they don't want more taxes.

"What I always tell people is the only money the state has is the money we take from you," he said.

Owen said he believes the Legislature can find pockets of money like they did in the Gov. Mike Rounds era. He also believes a bill can eventually pass to help fund economic development, "if we structure it right," he said. "If you go back to last year, one thing we had going for us is we had half the Democratic caucus in the House willing to vote for us."

He doesn't think a bill like that will pass this year without bipartisan efforts.

Going into the 2013 legislative session, Owen expects a few items will return for discussion -- texting and driving, health insurance and worker's compensation. He said he didn't foresee texting and driving coming back to the Legislature, but Vehle spoke up during the luncheon.

"I'm going to bring one to the Legislature," Vehle said of a texting and driving ban. "I want to start a culture and have it be that you shouldn't be texting and driving. We did that with seat belts."

He hopes a texting and driving ban would become a cycle of children first telling parents not to text while driving. Then once the children are able to drive, parents will reinforce the law and tell the children to leave cell phones alone in the car.

"The culture is more important than how many tickets can be written," Vehle said.

Rep. Tona Rozum, R-Mitchell, said she'd stand behind any bill Vehle presents during the session.

Owen said the state chamber is also going to work with small businesses around the state to make choices on health insurance once so-called Obamacare kicks in fully. He doesn't have a specific plan at this point, but hopes to bring in someone from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and let small businesses know what the rules are, what they have to offer for insurance and how much.

"We'll find the best experts we can to help them," he said.

He also said the chamber will continue to support maintaining worker's compensation accident reporting time at within three days of an accident. Last year, a bill was introduced to change the reporting period to within seven days of the accident.

Although an employee has the responsibility of telling an employer about an at-work accident, Owen said employers also have a responsibility of asking whether an injury happened at work if an employee indicates an issue.

"I'm not suggesting this is one of our responsibilities at the state chamber, but we should keep an eye on the issue," Owen said.