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Sutton, Evans show off ag platforms at Dakotafest

Democrat gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton, left, of Burke, and Don Norton, with South Dakota Agricultural and Rural Leadership, listen as Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kurt Evans, of Wessington Springs, answers a question during the gubernatorial candidate forum on Wednesday morning at Dakotafest. Candidates Kristi Noem and Terry LaFleur did not show up for the forum. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 3
Democrat gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton, left, of Burke, and Don Norton, with South Dakota Agricultural and Rural Leadership, listen as Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kurt Evans, of Wessington Springs, answers a question during the gubernatorial candidate forum on Wednesday morning at Dakotafest. Candidates Kristi Noem and Terry LaFleur did not show up for the forum. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 3
Democrat gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton, left, of Burke, answers a question as Don Norton, with South Dakota Agricultural and Rural Leadership, center, and Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kurt Evans, of Wessington Springs, listen during the gubernatorial candidate forum on Wednesday morning at Dakotafest. Candidates Kristi Noem and Terry LaFleur did not show up for the forum. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 3

Without Republican and current U.S. Representative Kristi Noem participating, gubernatorial candidates Billie Sutton and Kurt Evans each made their case Wednesday at Dakotafest in Mitchell to be South Dakota's next governor.

Sutton, the Democrat from Burke, and Evans, the Libertarian from Wessington Springs, spoke clearly in their support of agriculture in the state and affirming its place as the state's top industry. But both outlined different ways they'd be behind farmers and ranchers.

Sutton, a rancher who has been a state senator for the last eight years, said he wanted to stress value-added agriculture opportunities, along with supporting the state's hunting and fishing industries. He said he would work to build markets, build a fairer tax structure and country-of-origin labeling. Sutton was also stressing a need to make career and technical education opportunities more available to young people, which he said would help small towns develop a thriving Main Street.

Evans, who has made his career as a high school teacher and has previously ran for U.S. Senate and state auditor, noted his time working on the family farm as a young man. But admitted he didn't have all of the agricultural answers.

"I'm going to be in a room where most of the people know more about a lot of this stuff than I do," said Evans, frequently reminding people about his Libertarian values of limited government.

The absence of Noem was mostly left unbroached until the closing statement from Sutton, who thanked Evans for showing up to the event.

"As it's clear, Congresswoman Noem is not here," he said. "That's an important thing to note. She represents politics as usual, the status quo and a do-nothing record, as opposed to my record, which represents a getting-things-done mentality, common sense, reaching across the aisle to get things done."

In his closing remarks, Evans thanked the forum's sponsor, the South Dakota Farm Bureau for hosting the event and inviting him as a minority-party candidate. (Constitution Party nominee Terry LaFleur was not in attendance.) The event was about an hour and 20 minutes long but was not framed as a debate. Instead, participants each had a minute to respond to moderator questions with no time for rebuttals.

"I want farmers to be able to do what they're doing now, and be able to pass farms on to their children and grandchildren," Evans added, before speaking on his philosophy as a prospective governor. "Government would not get in the way or trip up farmers as they work hard, provide food and have a way of life that has been in their families for generations."

In the leadoff question, both candidates were in agreement that tariffs are the most pressing matter facing South Dakota's agricultural industry. Sutton said that if the federal government wasn't going to solve the issue, he vowed to put together a bipartisan group of Midwest governors to negotiate directly with foreign markets to work out the deal. Evans said that he generally agreed with Sutton but felt that America should be put first and that there's a place for tariffs.

"We want tariffs to be just large enough to provide some nationalist protections to make nations more independent," Evans said, adding that President Donald Trump's tariffs are too high. "Farmers need stability and we need to know what the tariffs are going to be and how high they'll be. We need security and definite numbers and we need them as soon as we can get them."

On questions about commercial animal feeding operations, drainage projects and wind farm development, both candidates said they support the rights of local landowners and the local county commissions to make the decisions that are in the best interest of their citizens. Evans, in particular, said that the issues regarding wind development are so "few and far between" that the benefits of wind development outweigh the problems.

Sutton said he would like to see a statewide discussion on watersheds and drainage impacts to better educate the public on those issues. He noted that he learned during the non-meandered waters discussion in the state legislature that issues vary by region of the state regarding water needs.

The candidates were asked specifically about how they'd balance agriculture as a business and the state's tourism interests. Making a point he would reiterate throughout the day, Evans said that agriculture is unquestionably more important to the state than tourism.

"I'm not too worried about offending people but I think tourism is a bit overvalued," said Evans, who later added, in a question about rural economic development, that he felt that government-funded economic development was a farce.

Evans and Sutton notably differed on the question of how ag land should be assessed and valued. Currently, ag land is assessed on highest and best use, something Sutton said he'd change.

"We're pushing producers to tear up their native ground for farming ... the tax system shouldn't force you to make land use decisions," said Sutton, before criticizing Noem's running mate Larry Rhoden for not showing good leadership on the issue as a Republican leader in the state Senate.

Evans said taxing the land on the highest and best use was the best way to go, adding he felt that too much government involvement makes everyone else poorer.

The forum was open to about 40 minutes of audience questions at the end, covering education funding, the cost of higher education, corruption in the state government and the ethanol industry.

On a question about government corruption, both candidates hammered away at the repeal of the Initiated Measure 22, which repealed a number of campaign-finance measures approved by voters in 2016. Sutton said the IM 22 matter was one of the reasons he's in the race.

"Your state government should be as honest and trustworthy as you are and I want to make sure that happens," Sutton said.

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