Benda, beef plant dominate year's headlines
By Dirk Lammers
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Much of the news in South Dakota in 2013 hovered around a shuttered beef plant in Aberdeen that returned to the headlines with a bankruptcy filing, investigations into corruption and other turmoil for the business.
But there were plenty of other big stories, including an autumn blizzard that killed thousands of cattle, the death of USA Today's founder, who was from South Dakota, and the pending retirement of the state's longtime Democratic U.S. senator.
Here is a look back at some of the state's top news stories of 2013:
Northern Beef Packers
It was purported to be South Dakota's highest-profile economic development project, with a $10 billion economic impact in the Aberdeen area. But when the long-delayed Northern Beef Packers beef-processing plant finally opened in 2012, it lacked the funds to ramp up to full production — and its owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 2013.
But as creditors were jockeying for position to get repaid, the state's former economic development director, who had ties to the plant, committed suicide in October. Richard Benda had left that state job to monitor the millions of dollars in loans that the plant was receiving from the federal EB-5 program, which provides green cards to foreigners who make large investments in U.S. businesses.
An investigation, announced by the governor after Benda's death, later found that $550,000 of a $1 million state grant given to Northern Beef had been improperly diverted to Benda's new employer, SDRC Inc., which was handling the state's participation in the EB-5 program.
A federal investigation into EB-5 finances is continuing as the plant is being bought by a creditor that gave Northern Beef a loan to stay afloat.
An early-season blizzard dumped up to 4 feet of snow in western South Dakota in October, knocking out power to about 30,000 people and killing between 15,000 and 30,000 cattle.
State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said many of the cattle died of congestive heart failure brought on by stress.
South Dakota cattle groups set up a fund that raised more than $2.5 million to help ranchers with their losses from the Oct. 4 blizzard, which also damaged numerous buildings, brought travel to a standstill and shut down schools. The storm contributed to at least one death — a man in the Lead-Deadwood area who collapsed while cleaning snow from his roof.
The 19 inches of snow that fell in Rapid City broke the city's nearly century-old one-day snowfall record for October by about 9 inches, according to the National Weather Service. The city also set a record for snowfall in October, with a total of 23.1 inches during the storm. The previous record was 15.1 inches in October 1919.
Sen. Tim Johnson retirement
U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement in March, setting off immediate rumors about who might fill South Dakota's lone Democratic-controlled seat on the national stage.
Speculation about Democratic candidates turned to Johnson's son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, and former South Dakota U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. But neither stepped into the race, leaving Sioux Falls businessman Rick Weiland alone in the Democratic primary.
Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, who announced his candidacy for the seat in late 2012, has since been joined by four other Republicans: state Sen. Larry Rhoden of Union Center, state Rep. Stace Nelson of Fulton, Sioux Falls physician Annette Bosworth and Yankton attorney Jason Ravnsborg.
Former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, 71, has announced he also is running, this time as an independent.
Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006. But he later returned to the Senate, and won re-election in 2008.
USA Today founder dies
USA Today founder and South Dakota native Al Neuharth died in April at the age of 89.
Neuharth changed the look of American newspapers by filling USA Today with breezy, easy-to-comprehend articles, attention-grabbing graphics and stories that often didn't require readers to jump to a different page. Sections were denoted by different colors.
Neuharth had journalism in his blood from an early start. At age 11, the Eureka native took his first job as a newspaper carrier. In his teens he worked in the composing room of the weekly Alpena Journal.
After earning a bronze star in World War II and graduating with a journalism degree from the University of South Dakota, Neuharth worked for The Associated Press for two years before launching a South Dakota sports weekly tabloid, SoDak Sports.
The venture failed, but Neuharth went on to build Gannett Co. into the nation's largest newspaper company.
During a May memorial service at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, friends and colleagues remembered him not as a driven media giant but as a loyal South Dakotan who never forgot his roots.
The South Dakota Legislature in March passed a law that prohibits beginning drivers from using cellphones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel.
The new law doesn't allow law enforcement officers to stop new drivers for the offense, but drivers could get such a ticket while stopped for another traffic violation.
The measure was suggested by a task force established to reduce teen traffic crashes.
Discussion of the bill slipped into an acrimonious debate in the House when an opponent's suggested that the state ban teens from premarital sex, provocative clothing, eating junk food and a long list of other activities that Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, argued showed the bill's hypocrisy.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard told lawmakers in December that he wouldn't recommend expanding Medicaid, an option offered to states under the federal health care overhaul, as part of the 2014 state budget.
Daugaard said the federal government is having trouble putting the entire overhaul into effect, and he wondered whether it could meet its pledge to pay most of the cost of the expansion.
Supporters said an expansion was needed to improve health care for the poor, arguing that low-income residents wait until they are seriously ill before seeking medical care. They said hospitals aren't paid for that emergency care and cover the loss by boosting charges to patients with private insurance.
President Barack Obama's health care law seeks to provide more people with insurance through subsidized private insurance offered through online marketplaces called exchanges. States also have the option of expanding Medicaid to cover people considered too poor to get the subsidized insurance.
South Dakota's Medicaid program now covers about 116,000 children, adults and disabled people. The expanded eligibility would add an estimated 48,000 people, mostly adults without children.
Shedding light on a mystery dating back to 1971, authorities in September pulled a rusted car from an embankment in Brule Creek that contained human remains believed to be two 17-year-old high school students who disappeared on their way to a nearby party.
The disappearance of Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson was one of the initial investigations of South Dakota's cold case unit in 2004. Authorities had made an arrest, but prosecutors dropped murder charges after discovering a prison snitch made up a supposed admission.
Then in September, the Studebaker Lark was reported to authorities by an angler who came across the car and remembered the 42-year-old case. Record flooding followed by a drought brought the vehicle into view.
A forensic pathologist in Sioux Falls confirmed that skeletal remains found inside the car are consistent with being from two different people. The bones have been sent to the University of North Texas for identification using DNA testing.
Attorney General Marty Jackley said a mechanical test showing that the 1960 Studebaker was in third gear — the highest — points away from foul play, but investigators will weigh other evidence before drawing a conclusion.
Pine Ridge legalizes alcohol
Members of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation narrowly voted in August to end prohibition and sell alcohol on the tribal land.
The ban had been in place for most of the reservation's 124-year history, with supporters arguing that legalization would only exacerbate the impoverished tribe's problems with domestic abuse, suicide, infant mortality, unemployment and violent crime.
But opponents noted that liquor stores in Whiteclay, Neb., a speck of a town along the reservation's border, sell millions of cans a beer a year.
Under the law, the tribe will own and operate stores on the reservation, and profits will be used for education and detoxification and treatment centers, for which there is currently little to no funding.
Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on Native American reservations unless the tribal council allows it. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol for two months in 1970s, but the ban was quickly restored. An attempt to lift prohibition in 2004 also failed.
South Dakota wildlife officials in August said a tally of young pheasants across the state indicated that bird numbers are down 64 percent from 2012. The tumble was blamed on months of persistent drought in 2012, a cold and wet spring in 2013, and less bird habitat.
Conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever used the data to urge Congress to pass a Farm Bill and strengthen conservation policies.
The drop also has been felt by hunters this season.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard in December announced the formation of a task force to find a balance between modern agricultural practices and wildlife-oriented land conservation. He made the announcement during his first-ever Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron.
South Dakota lawmakers passed a bipartisan economic development plan in March that is intended to help recruit projects to the state.
Legislators pledged $7 million to kick-start the funding. But the program, called Building South Dakota, will eventually be funded by part of a contractors' excise tax that is collected on large projects and some of the unclaimed property that the state receives from abandoned bank accounts.
Republicans and Democrats worked for two months to find a compromise to help South Dakota better compete with other states in recruiting large and small projects.
The plan also is expected to help communities build the infrastructure needed to encourage development, work with the state's technical centers on training and help K-12 schools bear the cost of English language training when a project draws workers from other cultures.