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Q&A: Venhuizen prepares for assisting in governor transition

Tony Venhuizen, a native of Armour, currently serves as Gov. Dennis Daugaard's chief of staff. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Tony Venhuizen has a history of leading others and then setting the table for the next person to pick up where he left off.

It dates back to running the Armour High School homecoming celebration for three years until he graduated in 2001. And some of those skills will be applicable when he's done as Gov. Dennis Daugaard's chief of staff early next year, transitioning to a new gubernatorial administration.

Venhuizen has worked with Daugaard since 2010 when he managed his campaign for governor and became Director of Policy and Communications after Daugaard's election. He was named chief of staff in November 2014.

But the political adviser said much of the remaining eight months will be focused on continuing the governor's efforts on workforce, while also preparing for a tidy transition to a new administration.

"The thing about this job is you always have a firm end date," Venhuizen said. "That's something we've been prepared for for a long time but that's part of the ethic of the job. It will be different to be doing something else but that's healthy. It's healthy for the state to have new people and new ideas in charge."

Venhuizen, during a recent sit-down interview with The Daily Republic, recalled his sophomore year at Armour High School when the community club was running the town's homecoming celebration, but it wanted the school to get involved with it once again. Along with a classmate, they put on the annual celebration three straight years and Venhuizen kept detailed records, which made the planning process easier each year.

"And you can hand the file off to the next person because it's easier for them, too," he said. "As far as I know, and I can't imagine that my file still exists from 17 years ago, but I know that it was the basis of the plan for the next several years ... and it makes it easier for people to follow in your footsteps like that."

When the parallels were pointed out between the transitions in Armour and Pierre, Venhuizen both laughed and agreed.

"It is much like that, except it's a little more complicated," he said. "But it's the same thought, yeah."

Venhuizen met with The Daily Republic to discuss his time working for Daugaard and both the governor's and his own personal accomplishments. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity: 

You've had extensive time in state government, so if you were to evaluate it — and considering you might be a bit biased — how well do you think state government works?

I think it works pretty well. Obviously, our state is small but relative to the size of our state, we have a small government and a small state budget. We run a pretty lean operation. In government, there's always opportunity to improve and I wouldn't argue with that. The people who work in state government in Pierre or around the state are hard-working, good people.

It's not a very political environment. Pivoting a bit, the state legislature is also not a very political environment. That's something that occasionally I'll see people talk about partisanship taking over the legislature and I just don't know what they're talking about. That's just not the case. There are very few issues that divide on party lines and when I think about the significant things that the governor has passed through the legislature, they were all passed with bipartisan support and usually with legislators from both parties involved with creating that or working through them.

Do you have one or two accomplishments that you're most proud of or maybe the administration would be proud of?

Those might be a little different. If you ask the governor what he's most proud of—and I know the answer because I've heard him answer it before—his priority throughout his time in office has been the financial stability of the state. We got the budget balanced when he came into office ... we've kept it balanced, we've had a surplus every year at the end of the year. He's proud of that and he would probably point to that as the thing he's most proud of. I'd agree and I'm supportive of all of that.

More personally, there's a couple things I'm proud of. One of them is the state dual-credit program. That was really something that was borne out of my personal experience out of my time at Armour High School. We had the chance to take dual-credit college courses really before anyone knew what that was. And that was great and it was probably a little ahead of its time. At that time, a lot of high schools were reluctant to do that.

You look at all of the reasons that taking dual credit is a good thing for students, for high schools, for the university system, for everybody and the barrier is: who is going to pay for this? So the governor stepped in and said, 'We'll pay for this.' So the governor sat down with the Board of Regents and the tech schools where they would write down their costs a little bit and the state puts in the money and we got those credits now where they're like $50 a credit, instead of $300. And we just have thousands of kids taking those courses, it's just exploded because we dropped the price so much. The regents have data that shows those kids, when they go to college ... they go to college at a higher rate, they stay in college at a higher rate and they're better prepared when they get there. It's across the board a benefit and I personally take a lot of pride in that.

The other thing I'd point to as something I'm proud of is my participation in the Blue Ribbon Task Force three years ago. That was a very big, long, in-depth process. I wasn't the chair of that but I did a lot of work with them as a task force member, coordinating those meetings and making that happen. And once they adopted our report, working in the Legislature to get that teacher pay package passed was a big lift.

With regards to workforce, that's one of those topics that's not going anywhere. What sort of initiatives do you feel like have worked and going forward, what are some areas that need to be focused on?

That is an issue that will probably never go away. You know, the governor will often say that workforce is a marathon, not a sprint. And I really think it's more of a relay race, and not to strain the analogy, but you're never really done. You do as good as you can and you hand it off to the next guy.

There's certainly opportunities for the next governor. We've tried to encourage more apprenticeship programs and also work-based learning in the high schools. ... The nice thing about apprenticeships is that you're paid to do it, rather than paying to do it. An apprenticeship model is something that has a lot of appeal and it's a change for the education system, so it takes a lot of adjustment. It's not something you're going to announce one day and make it happen. It takes a lot of work to adjust your institutions toward that. We've started down that road and that could be very important.

Is there any particular topic or issue that you feel you weren't able to accomplish as much as you wanted?

I don't know if I would say that. But the workforce one is one where there's so much left to do. And there will always be so much more left to do. I certainly would never say that, "We finished this and workforce is taken care of now." There's so much more left to do.

It's being talked about a lot in the (gubernatorial) campaign but we clearly need to keep working in this state on how do we deal with drug addiction, mental health and the criminal justice system. And what do we do about the fact that this part of the country, not just South Dakota, but the Midwest, has seen such an influx of meth. Why is that? It's coming from Mexico. That's the big change, that meth used to be manufactured in these meth houses in Mountain Dew bottles or something and now it's been manufactured on an industrial scale and being brought in from other places. The rate at which meth is being used in all of our surrounding states and here is really troubling.

I always join the governor when we're interviewing candidates to be a judge. But whenever you do those interviews, whether they're prosecutors or defense attorneys or magistrate judges, they're involved in the system in some way. It used to be that most of the criminal cases were centered around alcohol, where the person was drunk. That kind of changed to marijuana and now it's meth. That's been a shift and we need to figure out what we're going to do about that.

What do you foresee as your future when you're done as chief of staff with Gov. Daugaard? What sort of things do you want to accomplish next on a personal level?

I don't know for sure. I've liked this job a lot. You get to work on a lot of different things and a lot of variety and you get to feel like you've done something at the end of the day. I'm not looking to work in the next administration, it's not something I'm seeking. We have a lot of grandparent-related pressure to move to Sioux Falls or closer to it. ... I really don't know. I wouldn't mind being engaged in state government in some way, but it's not like I need to be. I'd be happy doing something different, too. I'm a lawyer, so I could always do that.

Do you feel like politics could be in your future as a candidate some day?

Maybe, maybe. I was just saying to someone the other day that I'm a Calvinist, so I don't always feel like having a plan making sense. But I don't have a big, grand strategy for my entry into politics. I wouldn't rule that out. My grandpa was in the state legislature for 26 years and that was really how I was first brought into it. I've been visiting the legislature my whole life. It's something I might want to do at some point but I haven't printed any signs or anything.

I think it would be fun to be in the state legislature. I've worked with the state legislature a lot now and there's a lot of good people there. They're paid a little something but it's basically a volunteer job. I've always thought it would be fun to be on the other side of the table and mix it up and try some things. I think that would be fun. I don't know about higher than that. It's kind of a fool's errand to say, ''This is my plan to be in the U.S. Senate."

What else are you looking to accomplish, as the administration winds down?

I talked about the workforce matter and that is definitely an area where we want to continue to push the ball forward and the governor doesn't want to just take a year off and have no progress in that area. So he appreciates that the next governor might have a different strategy or approach, we don't want at the state level to be standing around waiting to see what happens next. The nice thing is that everyone has a general agreement about the direction we need to be heading.

There's a fair amount of work that needs to be done if you want to do a responsible job of transitioning out of office, setting the table for that. One experience I've had that's unusual is that I was an intern for governor-elect Mike Rounds in 2002 in his transition team and I was on Gov. Daugaard's transition team in 2010, so I've actually been on two gubernatorial transitions on the incoming side, but never on the outgoing side. I have a pretty good understanding of what that process involves and what is helpful to an incoming administration.

And so, we are already starting to work with our staff and working with agencies to say "These are the things we need to be doing," so that when the next administration comes in, they can pick up the ball and run with it. We have decision points prepared for them, the budget is in a place where they can take it on, the legislative agenda is in a place where they can take it on. You're not dictating to them what to do but you're making it easy for them to come in and take it over. And regardless of who gets elected, that's just the responsible thing to do for the citizens of the state. You don't want to hamstring a new administration with a poor transition.

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