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In Mitchell visit, Thune said work supersedes legacy

In the library named after one of South Dakota's most famous politicians, U.S. Sen. John Thune admitted he was a bit stumped on Friday. At a question-and-answering gathering held in the George and Eleanor McGovern Library in Mitchell, Thune was a...

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to members of the public along students and faculty at Dakota Wesleyan University on Friday morning in the Tiger Cafe' inside the McGovern Library on DWU's campus during a public speaking event to discuss current political issues and answer questions. (Matt Gade / Republic)
U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to members of the public along students and faculty at Dakota Wesleyan University on Friday morning in the Tiger Cafe' inside the McGovern Library on DWU's campus during a public speaking event to discuss current political issues and answer questions. (Matt Gade / Republic)

In the library named after one of South Dakota's most famous politicians, U.S. Sen. John Thune admitted he was a bit stumped on Friday.

At a question-and-answering gathering held in the George and Eleanor McGovern Library in Mitchell, Thune was asked what he wanted his legacy to be. The third-term Republican senator said he hopes history reflects well on him.

"You kind of get stuck in the bubble you're in," he said. "I try to focus on the day by day, and keep my head down, stay in my lane and do the work. Ultimately, history will judge how you handled or conducted yourself in public life."

Speaking to a room full of college students, faculty and community members for about an hour at Dakota Wesleyan University's Tiger Cafe, Thune urged those in the audience of two things: to remember that every one of their votes counts and that all people are capable of being difference makers.

"I want to be somebody who speaks the truth but somebody who does it with kindness," he said. "I think you can do that in public life, and you can have convictions."

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Thune said he believes divided government - as it is now with a Republican president and Senate but a Democrat-controlled House - can make for good bipartisan policy. But he said the divisiveness of the current political status doesn't make him optimistic that will happen. He said the most recent government shutdown of five weeks didn't provide gains for either side.

"I think there's people that think, 'It will give me leverage,' or 'It's going to help with my agenda,'" he said, "but I think it ends up being, in my view, a pox on everybody's house. If you're asking who wins politically, I think it's the wrong calculation to make."

He said he was concerned about the national emergency declaration called by President Donald Trump, saying it was a worrisome precedent. He said he's in favor of an "all of above approach" on addressing U.S.-Mexico border issues.

"We're a nation of immigrants, and a nation of laws," Thune said. "So let's have a secure border, a legal way of entering our country and a bigger gate at the border, if that's what we need."

Thune was also quizzed on a number of other pressing issues:

Hemp in South Dakota

Thune, who was one of the key senators in the passage of the most recent farm bill, said he would stay mostly neutral in the debate about growing hemp for commercial purposes in South Dakota. The farm bill authorized hemp in federal farm policy, which opened the door for more commercial production.

"It's going to be their call," he said. "I try not to get in the way of what the legislature and the governor are doing, but I think when it was included in the farm bill this year, there was an expectation that it would expand in how it was grown and how it was processed, that's going to be up to states to continue working with that."

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Thune said the legislation will mainstream hemp in a new way.

"It's always been viewed, from the law enforcement community, as something that gets confused with a marijuana plant, and therefore it's difficult to enforce. There are many products, byproducts and derivatives of hemp. Our folks in South Dakota will have to decide how we proceed with it and it's now a crop that's authorized in federal farm policy."

Student debt plan

One of the audience questions for Thune on Friday was regarding his plan for helping with student loan debt. Thune, along with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced legislation that would allow employers to contribute up to $5,250 tax-free to their employees' student loans. He said that would be a benefit to students, and also to employers seeking to attract top talent.

"We think that's an additional incentive," Thune said of the legislation, titled the Employer Participation in Repayment Act. "Now kids are coming out of school with some pretty good debt load, especially now because the denominations keep getting larger. We want to provide as many tools as possible for helping with that."

The road to 5G

Thune commended the efforts of local South Dakota cities to prepare for the rollout of 5G, which is the next advancement in cellular networking. Cities like Mitchell and Sioux Falls have passed ordinances to streamline siting and permitting requirements for the towers that are built for 5G, which are smaller in nature and have to be more tightly compacted.

"I think a lot of our communities have done a good job of putting into place the ordinances to help with buildout and investment," he said. "The challenge we have in a less-populated part of the country is to incentivize it, because the people who put the funding into the infrastructure want to get a return on it."

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The senator said South Dakota should make it easier, not harder, to allow cellular companies to invest in new technology in the state.

"You want to respect the local government's prerogatives in siting these facilities, and obviously they want to recover their costs, which I think is a reasonable request," he said. "But if we want to be on the cutting edge of this, we've got to be willing to allow that infrastructure to be built out and make it easier to site and permit these small cell units."

Related Topics: JOHN THUNE
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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