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U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., talks to a group of about 50 people Tuesday afternoon during a town hall meeting at the Highland Conference Center in Mitchell. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Thune talks African markets, U2, Obama during Mitchell stop

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Sen. John Thune has been a U2 fan for three decades, and now he's even more impressed by the band's lead singer, Bono.

Thune spent eight days in Africa as part of a congressional delegation and was impressed by Bono's commitment to HIV/AIDS prevention and education.

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"He's totally clued-in and very active," he said.

The Irish rocker spent most of the day in Ghana with the six senators and one congresswoman on the tour.

Sens. Thune, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., John Barrasso. R-Wyo., Mike Johanns, R-Neb., Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, traveled through Africa Jan. 5-13.

Thune said he and other members of Congress toured an HIV/AIDS clinic and installed malaria nets with Bono. They also listened and learned about how the United States can help halt the spread of AIDS in Africa.

While Bono's grassroots organization ONE is committed to helping people escape from extreme poverty, hunger and AIDS, Thune said the rock singer/songwriter is especially dedicated to HIV/AIDS relief.

But the trip had more to it than a humanitarian angle.

The United States has to get more closely involved with Africa, Thune said. He said it is the fastest-growing continent in terms of population.

China is well aware of that, and of the untapped potential, Thune said.

He said one thing especially struck him during the trip: "Just how incredibly China is in Africa and how we're getting our head handed to us by China," Thune said. "They're everywhere."

He said Africa will become a major economic force in the next 50 years, and the United States must find a way to increase trade with African nations.

"They've got tremendous potential," Thune said.

He toured an agriculture research center and learned about hybrid seeds that are being developed.

Thune said the trip allowed the members of Congress to learn a great deal and while some people turn up their nose at anything tied to foreign aid, the fact is, it's already in place. The United States provides $7 billion annually to Africa, Thune said, and the continent is growing and developing.

"I think there's a lot of potential for America with bilateral trade," he said.

While he was there to learn about vital issues, he also found time to talk music with Bono. Thune, who turned 51 while he was in Africa, said his interest in U2 goes "way back."

Thune was in Mitchell Tuesday for a town hall meeting at the Highland Conference Center. It's one of a series of town halls he has held across eastern South Dakota this week.

Following is a summary of topics Thune discussed.

* He offered a PowerPoint presentation on the economy, explaining how much of the federal government's spending is dedicated to discretionary spending and how much is set aside for mandatory programs.

Thune said the economy must get invigorated and "runaway spending" must be curtailed, because it's the only way for more jobs to be created and for the country to grow.

There are other concerns as well, he said.

"We need a tax code that is simple, clear and fair," Thune said.

But he said President Obama has to "lean into" his work to get things accomplished.

"It's going to require presidential leadership to get any of these things done," Thune said. "We really do need to do big things.

"There's a lot of skepticism it can happen. But I think the stakes are so high, we have no choice."

But he said Obama must show the country he can lead.

"There's only one person in this country who can sign a bill into law," Thune said.

* He said he also favors major regulatory reform.

"Probably the biggest issue I hear from small businesses here in South Dakota or when I talk to people in other states is the excessive, over-reaching regulations," he said.

Thune said there have been 61,000 new pages of new regulations added since Obama took office three years ago this week.

"Now, I'm not saying there isn't a good reason" for some of the laws involving health and safety, he said.

But Thune said many of the new laws are "nothing more than a justification for some bureaucrat's job."

He said new restrictions on child labor on farms is an example of laws that are not well-considered or needed.

"There wasn't anybody asking for this," Thune said. "There was no consultation with the farming community. It is crazy, what is being proposed."

Mayor Lou Sebert said the more stringent rules will also impact the city's Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, which has long hired part-time teen workers.

"That's how far-reaching it is," Sebert said. "We need to fight this."

"Sometimes I think folks in Washington, D.C., just completely miss the point." Thune said.

He said a moratorium on new regulations should be considered.

* Davison County Commissioner John Claggett asked if the federal government will pass a bill funding road and bridge repair and replacement.

"My hope is we'll get at least a two-year bill," Thune said. "My preference would be a five-year one. We're a state that relies on getting places."

* Dick Frederick, of Mitchell, asked Thune why the government spends money on illegal aliens and foreign aid, even for nations who consistently oppose the United States on world issues.

Thune said he shares that concern.

"I think the foreign aid budget needs to be examined on an ongoing basis," he said.

There are nations who consistently misspend the aid they receive, Thune said.

He said while he opposes the flood of illegal immigrants who come to the U.S., he also understands the history of the country.

"We are a nation of immigrants. My grandfather came to America from Norway in 1906 to found Thune Hardware," he said, referring to a Mitchell store that still carries the name but no longer has Thune family involvement.

But he said there is another component to that.

"We are a nation of laws," Thune said. "We've got to enforce our laws."

The answer is to encourage more legal immigration and discourage illegal immigration, he said..

* Darin Gullen, of Mitchell, asked about the pay freeze for federal workers.

Gullen is an E-6 who loads munitions for the South Dakota Air National Guard in Sioux Falls. He said federal workers have been without a pay raise for three years.

Thune said he understands the concern.

"I believe when you're making decisions on federal wages and compensation, the people who ought to be taken care of first are wearing the uniform," Thune said. "Everything else becomes pretty secondary. That ought to be first priority."

But he said federal employees need to show the public they understand it's a difficult economy now, with people who are hurting, so federal employees may have to see reductions in their numbers and in their retirement packages.

"There shouldn't be a two-tiered economy," Thune said, "with federal employees better off than people in the private sector."

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