MERCER: Award for Novstrup proves sunshine mattersSen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, became an advocate for open government because he was stone-walled by the former director for the James River Water Development District.
State Sen. Al Novstrup earned the public recognition he received this past weekend by the South Dakota Newspaper Association for his efforts in the Legislature to improve South Dakota’s open government laws.
Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, became an advocate in recent years because he was stone-walled by the former director for the James River Water Development District.
Today Darrell Raschke isn’t employed by the district, the district has many new members on its board, and the public now has a better idea of the district’s recent financial activities as the result of a state Legislative Audit review.
Had a newspaper accomplished what Novstrup has regarding the water district, there wouldn’t be any question that public recognition was deserved. Novstrup’s doggedness led to a housecleaning, via the ballot box and the auditor’s scrutiny.
Officially the reason for Novstrup’s award from the SDNA was his open-meetings and open-records legislation. His bills passed in 2012 were important but weren’t earth-shaking.
One required that public employee contracts be open records. The other required that teleconference meetings, even if a quorum of elected or appointed members isn’t present, need to be open to the public. Their significance is that both addressed real problems that had been found.
In 2011, Novstrup was prime sponsor of the legislation that created in state law a set of penalties for public officials who improperly deny access to public records.
That measure resulted directly from his experience with the water district.
His fight with the water district involved a black eye that he inflicted upon himself. An administrative hearing officer ruled in his favor in his pursuit of financial records from the district, but he refused to pay the cost for them, so they sat waiting, untouched for many months.
This year, Novstrup went to the former doctor’s clinic that is the district’s office, paid the bill, asked some questions, got some answers and left with the records.
In 2010, Novstrup led the charge in the Legislature to force the James River district and two other water districts to roll back the property tax increases they had levied through a loophole. The loophole occurred because the Legislature drew new boundaries for the districts in 2009.
In 2009 the Legislature, specifically then-Rep. Tim Rave, R-Baltic, inquired whether taxes would be raised. Raschke told Rave, in what clearly was an evasion when viewed in retrospect, that their world wouldn’t change.
That tax increase, which Novstrup first learned about from a Democratic farmer from Mansfield one morning at breakfast at McDonald’s, was the trigger for the democratic revolution that changed control of the water district’s board. It also was the trigger for Novstrup’s conversion into one of the Legislature’s leading advocates for open records and open government.
The story of Al Novstrup is one example of how openness indeed makes a difference in how we are governed in South Dakota. Another example is on the statewide election ballot this fall.
That is a referral vote regarding the governor’s plan to divert 22 percent of contractor excise tax revenues and use the millions of dollars for grants to business projects.
The governor’s plan would be a replacement for the previous system expanded under the previous governor that provided refunds to projects on their construction taxes.
That old refund system was repealed, effective at the end of 2012, by the Legislature in 2010. Upon Dennis Daugaard taking office as governor in 2011, the Legislature at his suggestion passed the new proposal. Democrats successfully delivered on a petition drive to refer the Republican governor’s plan.
The old system was repealed in large part because of public knowledge of the refund recipients. The refunds previously had been kept secret under state law.
However there was a crack in the laws, and that crack allowed for a successful challenge of the secrecy. An administrative hearing officer agreed it was the public’s right to know the identities of the businesses that received the permits necessary for the refunds.
That was a convoluted way to get at information, and it didn’t provide the refund amounts. But winning that dispute opened the window part-way, so the Legislature and the public could, at the least, see who was getting the refund permits.
At the same time, there were critics of the TransCanada Keystone pipeline who said the project shouldn’t qualify for a construction tax refund, because the project was going to cross through South Dakota regardless of any incentive. Legislators, led by then-Sen. Dave Knudson, R-Sioux Falls, and Sen. Bob Gray, R-Pierre, decided that identities of the recipients of the refunds, and the amounts, should be information open to the public.
That information made defending the refunds more difficult. The repeal was passed without a replacement.
When the replacement comes up for a vote this fall, voters will be able to look at the refunds list which the state Revenue Department now maintains for public viewing. Voters will be better informed about how refunds were used in the past.
They can use that knowledge in making a decision about whether they want a grants program as the replacement. They can decide if this is how they want tax money spent.
Just as Sen. Novstrup’s work led to a decision by voters in the James River water district about which candidates should represent them on the board and in turn how the district’s business matters should be conducted.
Open government, whether public records or public meetings, matter.