MERCER: SD Dems trying to climb up, propose legislative agendaPIERRE — After losses in South Dakota’s 2010 elections that were even worse than usual, there are signs of new life in the Democratic Party as the 2012 session of the Legislature opens Tuesday. The strongest indication came New Year’s Eve. Democratic legislators released their agenda 10 full days before the session’s start.
By: Bob Mercer, The Daily Republic
PIERRE — After losses in South Dakota’s 2010 elections that were even worse than usual, there are signs of new life in the Democratic Party as the 2012 session of the Legislature opens Tuesday. The strongest indication came New Year’s Eve. Democratic legislators released their agenda 10 full days before the session’s start.
The timing might seem of little significance. But by getting their ideas and goals into the public arena beforehand, Democrats are out front in setting the overall tone.
This hasn’t always been the case. More than 20 years ago, a reporter asked a Democratic Party staff member where his legislators’ agenda was. They didn’t have one. Under the leadership of Rick Hauffe and Steve Erpenbach, a turnaround began.
Democrats had an agenda each session after that for many years. They ran candidates for as many legislative seats as possible. They came up with a devastatingly funny postcard campaign.
The aggressive approach worked. They came within one seat of a Senate majority in the 1990 elections. They captured 20 of the 35 Senate seats in the 1992 races, for a clear majority in that chamber.
Then things started falling apart. Republicans fought back hard in the 1994 elections to regain control of the Senate. The Legislature has been run by Republicans ever since. (Democrats never do well in elections for the state House of Representatives. The only times they’ve ever held a House majority were the 1935 and 1937 sessions, during the Depression.)
The 2010 elections saw Democrats diminished to the legislative equivalent of endangered species. They fell from 24 to 19 House members, and from 14 senators to five (after the post-election party switch to Republican by Eldon Nygaard of Vermillion). With only 24 of the 105 legislative seats, Democrats don’t have the numbers to accomplish anything on their own in the 2012 session. They have to hope good ideas can reinvigorate their ranks.
It’s happened before. They were down to 23 seats from 1985 through 1988, immediately prior to the early-’90s revival.
So what’s on the Democrats’ list for 2012? The overall theme is interesting: New approaches to lingering problems. The Democrats plan to specifically focus on three topics of better jobs, education reform and more responsible government.
At the top is a scholarship program for students to attend technical institutes for training in specific occupations where South Dakota’s existing labor force isn’t sufficient.
It’s true South Dakota offers Opportunity scholarships for top-performing high school students to attend any accredited campus within the state’s borders, including technical institutes. But only 2 percent of Opportunity recipients chose tech schools.
During the first seven years of the Opportunity program a total of 7,342 scholarships were awarded. Of those students:
n Five attended Colorado Technical Institute in Sioux Falls;
n Sixty-six went to Lake Area Technical Institute at Watertown;
n Twenty-seven chose Mitchell Technical Institute;
n Fifty-four enrolled at Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls; and
n Nine selected Western Dakota Technical Institute at Rapid City.
That’s a total of 161, or 2 percent.
South Dakota has another scholarship program, started by then-Gov. Mike Rounds, called Dakota Corps that targets specific professional occupations that require a bachelor degree from a college or university.
Dakota Corps relies on private donations, unlike the Opportunity program that is funded by the Legislature.
Democrats also propose giving more tax incentives to wind-power development and studying the effects of South Dakota’s 2 percent contractor excise tax on all development.
Things become blurrier on other job proposals. They want to encourage state government to purchase more goods and services from South Dakota providers. And they want to focus more economic development resources on expanding existing businesses already here while also doing more to help entrepreneurs.
In education, Democrats are walking into interesting territory with their proposal that state government set basic standards for pre-school education as states already do for K-12 education.
They also want Republican legislators and Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, to join them in setting a target for education funding. Their goal is to provide school districts with more reliability than seen in recent years.
The blurriness returns on the Democrats’ third education proposal. They want to do something about increasing funding levels for state universities and public technical institutes, and curtailing the pattern of tuition increases. They also want to help faculty and staff morale at these campuses.
How isn’t clear. “Democrats will propose several ideas on how to reverse these dangerous trends,” their joint news release promised.
The Democrats’ third area of emphasis is responsive government. They want an Internet-based set of data available for economic development programs, so the public can look at the goals, status and effects of specific grants and loans made by state government.
They also want to ban contributions and gifts to elected officials from principals in businesses that have received state no-bid contracts, grants or loans.
The ban proposal needs some work. It doesn’t cover candidates who aren’t elected and doesn’t affect principals in businesses who want a no-bid contract, grant or loan. The intent might be admirable. Making the ban effective and fair will be a challenge.
Democrats also want a review of policies regarding private sponsorships of state events, so as to deter improper influence on decision-makers.
The agenda gives the Legislature’s top Democrats, House leader Bernie Hunhoff, of Yankton, and Senate leader Jason Frerichs, of Wilmot, some starting points for trying to climb out of their hole.
They are at a crossroads along with their state party’s chairman, former legislator Ben Nesselhuf, of Vermillion. Democratic voter registration in South Dakota stood at 186,601 as of Jan. 1, while Republicans totaled 232,508 and independents 85,830.
A legislative agenda is the first step for Democrats in rebuilding their brand in South Dakota and perhaps offering a choice of two competitive major parties.