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Legislators chastise state school and public lands official for raises to staff

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Legislators chastise state school and public lands official for raises to staff
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

PIERRE -- Jarrod Johnson, the state school and public lands commissioner, suffered hard-edged criticism Friday from the Legislature's Joint Committee on Appropriations.

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Legislators on the panel, which oversees his office's budget, told him they were disappointed and offended by his decision to grant raises to his staff.

Sen. Larry Tidemann said he couldn't find the right word to describe his feelings.

Tidemann, R-Brookings, said Johnson had now twice violated the Legislature's no-raise policy that's been in general effect throughout state government for three years because of state budget deficits.

With Johnson sitting at the opposite end of the long table, Tidemann said Johnson had promised to Tidemann after the first occasion that he wouldn't do it again.

Johnson didn't dispute Tidemann's account.

"I am more than offended," Tidemann said.

Other legislators who told Johnson they were disappointed or offended included Sen. Jeff Haverly, R-Rapid City; Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford; and Rep. Dean Wink, R-Howes, who is the joint committee's overall chairman.

Peters said she was "appalled" that Johnson gave raises while the salary line was being held by departments such as Social Services and Corrections that deal with life and death situations

Johnson gave raises of 3 percent to three employees and 20 percent to a fourth employee in his six-person office.

Johnson defended his actions by saying that he still delivered on the required 10 percent cut in his office's general-fund spending.

He repeatedly claimed the raises were necessary to keep trained staff on the payroll at key times.

Johnson's explanation for giving the raises was punctured, however, by his answers to a series of questions by Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg. Brown is the joint committee's Senate chairman.

Johnson's answers to Brown revealed that the only person who threatened to leave the office was the recipient of the 20 percent raise.

That raise went to Johnson's deputy, Justin Ohleen, whose annual salary currently is listed at $60,000.

Johnson said the raise was to reach the amount that they had agreed upon when the deputy was hired.

Johnson's salary as commissioner is $78,363.

None of the 17 legislators at the table came to Johnson's aid or defense.

Lands commissioner is a statewide elected office established in the South Dakota Constitution.

Candidates for the office typically are selected through nominating processes at state conventions held by the two major political parties, rather than through primary elections.

Johnson, a Republican, was elected as lands commissioner in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010. The state constitution bars election to more than two consecutive terms in the office.

The lands commissioner oversees leasing of state lands for agriculture, mineral and oil and gas production purposes.

Revenue is distributed to schools, universities and other state institutions.

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