WOSTER: A memorable 50th birthday present from the governor
Twenty years ago just about this time, South Dakota legislators and Gov. Walt Miller were putting finishing touches on a budget they figured would run state government agencies and program for another fiscal year.
That was the 1994 session. The budget those legislators and Governor Miller crafted that session was for the fiscal year that would start on July 1. About 10 days before the new budget took effect, on June 22, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that video lottery was unconstitutional. Without video lottery, the new budget would be $65 million short.
Some budget cuts, another court ruling, a special session of the Legislature and a November vote on a constitutional amendment making video lottery legal again followed that ruling. Those were interesting times, and someday I’ll write about the budget issues.
Right now, what I’m remembering is the opening day of that session. The lede of my main story talked about Miller’s education plan and its impact on the Sioux Falls school district. The headline on my story the next morning said the new budget would take money from Sioux Falls schools, an arguable point, as it turned out. I vaguely remember the story. I remember the incident primarily because the day the story ran was my birthday.
I turned 50 that year, and it was my 25th straight session as a news reporter. Pretty big deal. Governor Miller issued an executive proclamation, a really nice one, memorializing the 50th and 25th. The Legislature did a commemoration, an incredibly well-written one that I assumed came from the pen of my long-time Legislative Research Council friend who always had a gift for words.
I have the commemorations hanging on the wall on the upstairs stairway where I can see them now and then but other people can’t. What I remember about the opening of that 1994 session was that early on the morning of my birthday, with several other reporters sitting around the Capitol press room, I received a call with the message that the governor wished to see me. The other reporters oohed and aahed, saying Walt was calling me up for cake and treats.
Turned out, that wasn’t it. I walked into the governor’s office to find the governor himself, the press secretary, a budget official and one or two other staffers, all sitting around. Turned out, the governor didn’t like my story about his education funding plan. As is often the case, when a governor doesn’t like a reporter’s story, a number of people who work for the governor don’t like it, either. Several of those people were sitting around the room. Copies of the morning newspaper, with my story splashed across the top of the front page, were scattered around the executive office. Some of the copies looked as if they might have been rudely handled before being tossed away.
As I said the story had an arguable point, and argue we did. I was badly outnumbered. Sure, I had freedom of the press on my side, and the long, glorious history of political and government reporting. I had John Peter Zenger and all those other news people from history on my side.
Unfortunately for me, the governor had real, live people on his side, and his people were in the room.
We had a spirited discussion. I always liked Walt Miller, from the first time I met him when he was young and a member of the House of Representatives. He could be stubborn, and some of his colleagues would sometimes say “Old Walt’s got his neck bowed.’’ But he was always a gentleman in my experience, and we parted respectfully. I wasn’t exactly wrong in what I’d written, but I took from the discussion a reminder to pay attention to my work. I had those reminders way too often in my news career for a guy with proclamations hanging on the wall.
When I walked back into the press room, the other reporters were grinning and waiting to hear about the birthday surprise. These days, I’d probably have tweeted or blogged the meeting. Back then, I didn’t.
“No birthday deal,’’ I said. “Walt just wanted to talk about education funding and news reporting.’’