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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Heartland Building Green Building... But in Green Location?

Jon Hunter notes with approval Heartland Consumers Power District's planned construction of a new green building in the industrial park out on the southeast edge of town. (Nice that the LAIC can convince the organization run by the LAIC president to move out there.)

I approve as well, but must ask the following: how green is it? Heartland currently has its headquarters smack dab in the middle of town, a block from Main Street, within walking distance of City Hall, the courthouse, LAIC HQ, China Moon, Dairy Queen, the grocery store, all those fine places a busy employee might meet or eat during the day. Now they are moving to a location at the edge of town, a good mile from the same amenities. How much more gas will folks use to get to this contribution to Madison's urban sprawl?

In other words, how green is your building when everyone has to drive to get to it?

Update 2009.03.02: Recall also that in December, when ICAP agreed to move across the street onto the old Rosebud lot, Mr. Hunter noted with approval that keeping ICAP's 40-odd workers downtown was part of a win-win scenario. So may we conclude Heartland's move to the urban fringe is a loss?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Thune, Johnson, Herseth Sandlin Join Unemployment Stimulus Battle with Rounds

South Dakota's Congressional delegation seems to be making some uncharacteristic incursions into state politics this week. In response to Governor Rounds's signaled rejection of 0.89% of the federal stimulus money coming South Dakota's way, both of our senators took sides, with Senator Thune backing the governor and Senator Johnson telling him to take the money.

I note with interest Senator Thune's argument against accepting the unemployment money:

"These governors are going to have to shut off these programs (once the money runs out) and how do you tell somebody enrolled in the program that they’re no longer going to be eligible for it" [reported by Ledyard King, "Johnson Says Rounds Shouldn’t Turn Away Federal Unemployment Aid," that Sioux Falls paper, 2009.02.25].

That's funny: I thought Republicans were all about shutting off programs. Thune sounds like a bleeding heart Washington liberal to me. ;-)

Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has also weighed in, going point by point against the arguments Governor Rounds and some of his GOP pals have made:
  • The stimulus law does not require states to maintain any unemployment insurance rule changes past the duration of the stimulus money.
  • Unemployment benefits are among the best stimulus tools available.
  • Taking the stimulus money now will actually avert a UI tax increase on employers this year (just as the governor's labor secretary is trying to tell him).
I'm of the impression that our representatives in Washington don't often challenge decisions in Pierre. But there's enough at stake with the unemployment stimulus—boosting the economy, making the most of federal dollars, and helping our neighbors—that our Congresspeople can justify spending a little political capital to back or rebut the governor's action.

Stimulus Already Putting Hardhats to Work

They call Missouri the "Show Me" State. Let's make that the "Show me how to put the stimulus money to work" State. On yesterday's All Things Considered, Missy Shelton reported* that Missouri state government put a list of stimulus projects together in December. The Missouri Department of Transportation didn't see any reason they couldn't be the first to put that federal money to work. The day President Obama signed the stimulus into law, one road construction firm rehired 40 laid-off workers. Missy Shelton's colleague at Missouri Public Radio, Jennifer Moore, reports that Journegan Quarries in Ozark, Missouri, is also calling back workers to meet the demand they'll get from a project to add passing lanes to Route 60. Ultimately that road project will create 200 jobs. MODoT has three other big job-creating road and bridge projects ready to go now.

South Dakota has posted its first list of road projects, but I don't hear any shovels yet. Missouri's already getting to work—let's get moving!

*My apologies: As of 08:45 CST, NPR appears not to have posted the audio of Missy Shelton's Missouri portion of the report.

Madison Schools Putting Collaborative Web to Work

When I first saw Chuck Clement's headline, "Use of Computer Technology Grows at Elementary Level," I felt a little queasy. More computers in the elementary classroom? Do little kids really need that technology more than some quality time with books, crayons, and monkey bars?

But I read on and found hopeful signs that Madison Central's CIO Rob Honomichl is spreading some good Web 2.0 gospel. In a 15-week workshop he's conducting for about 40 teachers in the district (and St. Thomas!), Honomichl is emphasizing the use of collaborative Web technology like Google Docs and wikis. Fifth-grade teacher Susan Hageman is already putting the technology to work:

Susan Hageman, a fifth-grade teacher at Madison Elementary, said her students have used Google Docs to complete homework. As an example, Hageman created a survey for her students in which they answered questions about books they had read. She also had students write reaction papers about the presidential inauguration.

Hageman said that students have few access problems since the Google Docs are available for use free and can operate with different generations of Microsoft software [Chuck Clement, "Use of Computer Technology Grows at Elementary Level," Madison Daily Leader, 2009.02.24].

Free always gets my attention, especially in the classroom where teachers can add value without spending additional tax dollars.

More important is the pedagogical point. The Internet is a huge learning tool. But the Internet isn't a one-way information suuperhighway, and learning isn't a passive process where we plug a cable into a kid's head and pump in knowledge ("I know kung-fu!"—if only!). The value of the Internet is that it's not like TV, which does all the work while kids slump glassy-eyed in their seats. The Internet rocks not just because of the knowledge we find there but more because of the knowledge we can build there (read up on constructivism; your teachers have). Kids need to learn that the Internet (like the government) is what they make it. Using Google Docs, wikis, blogs, and all these other interactive tools (even Facebook!) can help prepare kids to use the Internet not just as a video game but as a network, a place to connect with other people and ideas.

Of course, I hear from teachers at some schools that they can't even access Google Docs or blogspot.com, because their local administrator or the state filter blocks any site that offers even a remote chance of students encountering naughty words or communicating with each other. Heavens forfend!

Elementary students can probably get just as good an education if they never touch a computer and just interact face-to-face with their teachers (and the rest of us adults in their community). But we do have an obligation to prepare students to use the learning tools available. Using the Internet means teaching kids a new media literacy in which they learn to communicate and collaborate, not just flip a switch and passively receive. More schools need to follow Madison's lead and open the doors to a more interactive Internet.

Banks Wimping Out, Stimulus Just What Renewable Energy Needs

Leave it to the private sector to solve the recession, and worthy projects will die for lack of capital while bank execs hoard their perks. That's why the stimulus package is exactly what we need.

One industry poised to put that federal aid to work: renewable energy. From Wednesday's Marketplace:

SAM EATON: By injecting billions of dollars into renewable energy projects, the federal stimulus package aims to do one thing -- fill the financial void left in the wake of the banking crisis. New Energy Capital CEO Scott Brown says the number of big banks willing to finance wind and solar projects has dropped from nearly two dozen to a handful.

SCOTT BROWN: Lehman, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Wachovia. All of those players essentially are now out of the market.

Taking with them the principle funding mechanism that made renewable energy the fastest growing source of power. Rhone Resch with the Solar Energy Industries Association says the federal stimulus package narrowly averts a catastrophe.

RHONE RESCH: We have literally hundreds of projects that are in the queue, we've got thousands of installers ready to go and warehouses filled with equipment. What we were lacking was the financing to get these projects off the shelf and moving forward. We now have that through the stimulus bill. [Sam Eaton, "Stimulus Enables Green to Grow," Marketplace, 2009.02.25]

There are no guarantees of success, but this lifeline to the renerable energy industry is a good example of how government action in a time of crisis can create jobs and economic activity, not to mention pleasant side effects like environmental gains and energy security.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Olson Blocks Smoking Ban to Save Big Macs

On Monday, District 8 Representatives Gerry Lange (D-Madison) and Mitch Fargen (D-Flandreau) both voted for HB 1240, which would prohibit smoking in public places. Their District 8 colleague, Senator Russell Olson (R-Madison), will now get a chance to reverse his nay on the senate version of the smoking ban earlier this month.

Olson channels PP (and PP's commenters) to offer this justification for his stand against "'Big Brother/Government' dictating social policy through law":

I understand the implications and medical rationale against smoking. I have heard the second hand smoke arguments and I understand that people feel strongly about this issue. I also feel strongly and will not vote against the rights of individual business owners and tell them how to run their businesses. What is next? Will we have a scale and a tape measurer at McDonalds that tells people they are too short, too fat and their cholesterol is too high to have a Big Mac? It is the same baseline argument. High Cholesterol has an adverse impact on a person’s well being and if they are hospitalized and can’t afford their medical bills, we the tax payers are saddled with their debt. Think about it, where does it stop? [State Senator Russell Olson, legislative update, 2009.02.22]

Boy, and people say I get a little hyperbolic in my arguments.

I love Big Macs. I recognize that Big Macs and cigarettes both have health impacts that arguably increase health care costs for society. However, Senator Olson's worthy effort at analogy and slippery slope misses the point. Cigarettes have an immediate external impact beyond their users that Big Macs do not: second-hand smoke. If you and I go to McDonalds and sit at adjoining tables, you can enjoy your salad and McChicken while I snarf my Mac, no impact. If I come over to your table and try to shove some chewed-up burger in your mouth, you can probably have Officer Big Mac arrest me for assault.

Yet for the sake of a little extra profit for his restaurant buddies (oh wait, no one smokes at the Madison Dairy Queen, and they've been making money for decades), Senator Olson will continue to permit smokers to fill my lungs with their noxious offal in public places.

Reps. Lange and Fargen recognize the obvious difference between a burger (even a big greasy one) and a cigarette. The Feb. 3 Senate vote on the smoking ban was close; flip just one vote—Russ—and it passes.

Senator Olson's number again:
Home Address
6098 Dakota Avenue
Madison, SD 57042
Capitol Address
920 W. Sioux Avenue
Phone Numbers
Home 605-256-3899
Capitol 605-773-3858
Business 605-256-6536
Other Contact Information
Email Contact Senator Russell Olson
Fax 605-256-2990

City Commission Race Go; School Board, Anyone? Anyone?

We have a race! The Madison City Commission has three applicants for two seats. Incumbent Karen Lembcke wants to keep doing the job. Mike McGowan's experience with the City Commission and his big garage last year seems to have inspired him to public service as well.

And now last night's print MDL reports that McGowan's southeast Madison neighbor Nick Abraham has gotten his petition-poop in a group and filed to run for real this year. Let's hope Nick brings to the public forum some of the working-class concerns he expressed last year when he considered running.

Of course, Abraham might want to clean up his MySpace page before the campaign. The beer can in his profile photo might actually increase his political capital around Madison (but Lite?!?), but writing with a smile to an unnamed persecutor his wish that "the penicillin doesn't fix that nasty crap that you contract and you fricking die" could be a little awkward in the public arena.

Then again, maybe a little unvarnished Web 2.0 chatter is just what Madison politics could use...

But hey, what about that other race? The school board has three seats available again—Craig Walker's and Michelle Tucek's three-year seats and Steve Nelson's one-year seat. With petitions due at 5 p.m. tomorrow, neither incumbents nor challengers have thrown down the gauntlet. I'm sitting out this one, but how about the rest of you? Any takers?

I check KJAM and find Steve Nelson has indeed filed for one of the three-year seats on the board, leaving his one-year seat open.

And candidates, don't forget: you can reach the keenest political minds of Madison and show you're hep to the Web-cats by advertising on the Madville Times!

Update 2009.02.27 11:17 CST: Within 12 hours of my posting, Nick Abraham's MySpace account had disappeared. Good to know the Abraham campaign staff are paying attention. Now they might want to check the Google cache. Just so no one thinks I was making stuff up, here's a screen shot (click to enlarge) of the cached blog page to which I referred. Like most MySpace pages, it's darn near unreadable, so I've highlighted the text in question. (I'll leave it to you to hunt through the Google cache for the beer and bikini biker babe photos.)

Obama Begins Health Care Push: First Find the Money

Less than 40 days into his administration, President Obama begins his push toward universal health coverage. He still hasn't endorsed Dennis Kucinich's single-payer plan (come on, Barack! you know you want to!), but the President is starting sensibly, asking Congress to figure out how to pay for the plan first. How's that for practical?

Among things to like about the first draft:
This first draft aims at building a $634B reserve over the next decade for health care reforms, and the administration characterizes that figure as a "down payment." As the President said Tuesday night, "None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy. But this is America. We don't do what's easy. We do what's necessary to move this country forward."

Then again, health care reform may not be as hard a sell as the noise machine across the aisle will have you believe. A new Kaiser Family Foundation report finds 62% of respondents say, recession be darned, we need to reform health care now. 13% of respondents report burning up most or all of their savings on health expenses (KFF survey, page 2). President Obama has the confidence (a "fair amount" or a "great deal") of 72% of respondents to do health care reform right; Democratic Congressional leaders also enjoy such support from 57% of respondents (GOP leaders come in at 38% on that question; see KFF, p. 6).

One complication in winning support for increased spending is the majority of respondents who believe the right reforms can fix health care without spending more money (KFF, p. 5). We can make that happen, but only if we go real universal and transfer our money from the inefficient bureaucracy and profiteering of private insurers to the efficiency of a public single-payer system. Even Blue Dogs like Stephanie should be able to get behind fiscal savings like that!

Olson to District 8: Don't Mess with My Wife

Senator Russell Olson (R-8/Madison) takes a little while to get going in his latest Legislative Update. He plays Tony Dean in his first paragraph (pheasants! geese! "...the final colors of the sun light up the ice..."!), muses over family life, TV, and the joy of crackerbarrels, and then finally gets to actual issues four paragraphs in.

Even as he digs into his stance against the smoking ban, Olson veers into another personal tangent... although this one has a reasonable point:

I am troubled by my friends and constituents who don’t agree with me who feel it necessary to give my wife an ear full on this subject. Jennie doesn’t get to place that vote, I do. She works as a nurse at the Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls and at the Interlakes Medical Center in Madison. She understands the medical rationale against smoking and would, if she were in the position to do so, vote for the ban. You wouldn’t stop at the playground during recess and bawl my kids out for my vote. They have as much to do with how I vote as Jennie does on this issue. I encourage feedback, but please, direct it to me and not my family [State Senator Russell Olson, legislative update, 2009.02.22]

Now I don't know just what those earfuls Jennie's been catching have consisted of. I can imagine that if I worked in health care, I'd be keenly interested in the smoking ban. If one of my co-workers in that health care setting were married to public figure opposing such legislation, it would probably be a natural topic of conversation to ask, "What the heck is he thinking?"

At which point, if she said, "My husband does his job; I do mine. You'll have to talk to him," I'd let it rest. If she invites further conversation, great. Otherwise, back to work.

Russ is right: he's the Senator, he casts the votes, and he has to answer for those votes. People can certainly ask Jennie if they see her, but they shouldn't expect her to act as the senator's secretary or message service and definitely not punching bag. Jennie shouldn't have to answer for Russ's bad legislative decisions any more than my lovely wife should have to answer for my cranky blog posts. Russ and I both have plenty of channels of communication available for feedback and bawlings out.

Besides, I hear Jennie comes from Democrat stock, so the in-laws are probably working on Russ already.

Idle Speculation: Noem for Governor? Nah, Try House!

A commenter goes off topic:

you have compared Kristi Noem to Alaska governor Sarah Palin, but do you think Noem could be the next governor of South Dakota ?

Not if Noem doesn't fire up that blog again! ;-) (And when did I compare Noem to Palin? You could be thinking of someone with a smaller beard....)

I don't think that's the Assistant Majority Leader's girls doing some comment-spam-trial-ballooning for Mom. Maybe someone from the rodeo lobby or the Second Amendment Sisters is trying to stir the pot. So I'll bite:

Noem would certainly make interesting counterprogramming to Herseth Sandlin, should the Dems have the pleasure of fielding the biggest name available for the 2010 contest. Noem brings Mom-cred and country-cred—not that either is a prereq for good government, but both make for great television campaigning. Of course, that would deny some of her base one of their favorite arguments, that women ought to stay home and focus on their family. (Maybe that's a good reason for Noem to run for the big ticket!)

But let's be realistic: Noem hasn't made any gubernatorial noise, and the field is already noisy enough. The party faithful are putting lots of chips on Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Brookings Mayor Scott Munsterman is making a push (by the way, he agrees with me that we need to take a look at small-scale wind energy) to boost his statewide recognition. Ken Knuppe may be all hat and mustache, but what a mustache! And Dave Knudson is there to suck up the Sioux Falls Chamber/technocrat vote.

(Plus, Noem supports requiring insurers to pay for contraception. The party faithful would never let her be governor... would they? ;-) )

If Noem were looking to run against the machines already in motion, she'd be doing a little more to boost her name recognition (like maybe filibustering against yesterday's motion to recess and demanding the Legislature remain in session rather than running scared from a little snow). Instead, she seems more interested in just doing her job. If she's smart (and she is) and really wants a promotion, she'll let the fellas wrassle over Pierre and throw her hat in the ring for the U.S. House seat. The last time the GOP came close in the U.S. House race was with an experienced East River legislator. Even against Herseth Sandlin, Noem could put up a better fight than the last two placeholders.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Government: What We Can Achieve

Between speeches last night, my wife and I joked about why the Republicans hadn't given Alaska Governor Sarah Palin the national spotlight again to rebut President Barack Obama's address to Congress. After watching Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's laughable performance, from his awkward Bush-walk to the camera to the stilted Saturday Night Live delivery, we wonder if maybe Jindal didn't just raise Palin's stock.

The howler of the night: Jindal's revisionist leap of logic in claiming that the federal government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina proves that government can't rescue us from the current economic crisis.

The rhetorical imagery almost works, until you say two words: Bush Administration. The Republican Party would take the failure of one of its own, George W. Bush, and spin it as proof that government doesn't work.

If anything, Katrina more directly proves that putting people at the helm who don't believe in steering the ship of state, who don't even think the ship is sound, is a recipe for trouble.

Did Jindal even listen to the President's speech?

History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle class in history. (Applause.) And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive [President Barack Obama, address to Congress, transcript via CBSNews.com, 2009.02.24].

Heck, did Jindal listen to his own speech?

This is the nation that cast off the scourge of slavery, overcame the Great Depression, prevailed in two World Wars, won the struggle for civil rights, defeated the Soviet menace, and responded with determined courage to the attacks of September 11, 2001 [Governor Bobby Jindal, attempted rebuttal to the President, transcript via CNN.com, 2009.02.24].

Railroads, public high schools, GI Bill, interstate highways, Apollo—President Obama pointed to examples par excellence of government at its best. Governor Jindal concluded with a list of historic achievements that required government coordination.

Governor Jindal and his collapsing party, desperate for some way to destroy this new President, continue to engage in empty rhetoric that misses a fundamental political truth: Government is not an alien monster. Government is the tool we the people create to solve problems and achieve great goals we cannot handle by ourselves.

We can have a fair debate about just which problems government has a proper role in tackling. But government is what we make it. If we think government is a failure and elect people who share that view, we can expect dysfunctional government. If we put on our "Yes We Can" hats and elect folks who want to make government work, we can use government to make America better.

Brooks: Jindal out of Touch

Another Jindal howler: attempting to portray "volcano monitoring" as pork (note Jindal's use of the word larded). I don't need to live next to a volcano to recognize spending $140M on monitoring volcanoes is a really good idea. You'd think a guy who lives in a state built on flood plains in Hurricane Alley would grasp the importance of watching for natural disasters.

Governor Jindal is an icon of a party out of touch. But don't take my word for it; see what conservative commentator David Brooks says about Jindal's "Happy Mardi Gras" chat:

"You know, I think Bobby Jindal is a very promising politician," said New York Times columnist David Brooks, appearing on PBS, "and I oppose the stimulus because I thought it was poorly drafted. But to come up at this moment in history with a stale "government is the problem," "we can't trust the federal government" -- it's just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic right now. They may not like the way the Democrats have passed the stimulus bill, but that idea ... that government is going to have no role, the federal government has no role in this ... it's just a form of nihilism. It's just not where the country is, it's not where the future of the country is. There's an intra-Republican debate" [Sam Stein, "Bobby Jindal Response Panned By Pundits, Republicans And Democrats Alike", Huffinton Post, 2009.02.25].

Well, Governor Jindal had his shot. Speeches are done—now back to work!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

SD Labor Sec. Roberts Bucks Boss, Backs Blog on Unemployment Stimulus

Sure, it's easy for me to spout off from the couch on why Governor Rounds should accept the $5.9 million in unemployment insurance extension money from the stimulus package. But let's hear from someone a little closer to the action:

South Dakota should accept $5.9 million from the federal stimulus package to help jobless workers and support the system that pays unemployment benefits, a state advisory council recommended Tuesday.

The state can get the extra money by allowing jobless people to use more recent time periods in qualifying for unemployment benefits.

The extra money also would delay the imposition of a surcharge on employers that takes effect when the trust fund balance falls to a certain level, state Labor Secretary Pam Roberts told the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council.


Roberts said the purpose of unemployment insurance is to help people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, so the change makes sense.

A surcharge on employers kicks in if the trust fund balance falls to $11 million. That would happen Sept. 30 if nothing is done, and surcharge payments would be due in business payments due in January. With the extra money from the stimulus, it would be probably be delayed until March 31, 2010, with payments due in July [Chet Brokaw, "Panel Recommends Unemployment Insurance Strategy," AP via Pierre Capital Journal, 2009.02.24]

Their case was sufficiently persuasive that the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council voted unanimously to recommend that the Legislature update South Dakota's UI rules to qualify for the $5.9 million.

So the couch and the capital crowd agree: Governor Rounds's rejection of this little bit of stimulus money will raise costs for employers sooner, just as they're trying to recover from the recession. Is that political posturing still worth it, Governor?

Rounds Joins Jindal Jive, Stiffs Stimulus

...not to mention workers.

South Dakota Governor M. Michael Rounds joins the ranks of Republican governors playing politics with the stimulus package, telling that Sioux Falls paper that he will reject five million dollars of unemployment insurance included in the stimulus package. Governor Rounds says he's concerned that accepting the money could (could—I have yet to hear a single governor say it will) require South Dakota to raise its unemployment insurance tax in a couple years after the stimulus money runs out.

The Republican commentariat celebrates, but Governor Rounds's gambit is pure political theater, not to mention bad economics:
  1. The $5M Governor Rounds would so bravely reject is less than 1% of South Dakota's expected $662.5M stimulus take. That's like picking only the blue sprinkles off your birthday cake.
  2. Unemployment benefits are one of the most effective economic stimulus tools available, with every dollar generating $1.64 in economic activity. That's second only to increasing food stamp benefits for direct economic impact and better than infrastructure spending, general aid to state governments, and tax cuts, none of which Governor Rounds is poo-pooing.
  3. The "strings" on the unemployment aid Governor Rounds doesn't like are actually requirements that the New York Times says at least half of the states have already enacted:
    To qualify for the first one-third of federal aid, the states need to fix arcane eligibility requirements that exclude far too many low-income workers. To qualify for the rest of the aid, states have to choose from a menu of options that include extending benefits to part-time workers or those who leave their jobs for urgent family reasons, like domestic violence or gravely ill children [editorial, "What Part of 'Stimulus' Don't They Get?" New York Times, 2009.02.23].
  4. The "strings" would actually modernize unemployment insurance rules to take advantage of computerized income reporting (ah, computers: that's why Gov. Rounds doesn't like it).
  5. The rule changes would expand coverage by keeping better track of part-time and low-income workers... you know, folks who could probably use more help than the GOP's Wall Street pals.
  6. The whole point of the stimulus package is to shorten the recession. Boost the economy and get people back to work sooner, and the state won't have to draw down its unemployment insurance funds as quickly. Let the recession roll, and we'll be raising unemployment taxes sooner to replenish the more quickly depleted fund.
Governor Rounds and his posturing pals are standing in the way of one of the most effective stimulus tools we have available, not to mention fair and effective upgrading of their states' unemployment insurance rules. Let's put politics aside, do what's right for South Dakota workers who can use the help, and take our best shot at boosting the economy.

U.S. Health Care Costs: $8160 per Person

...amount spent on paperwork and yachts for insurance execs: $1958 per person.

In the run-up to President Barack Obama's address to Congress and the world tonight, the Department of Health and Human Services gives numbers on one of the biggest obstacles to recharging the American economy: the spiralling cost of health care. HHS figures we Americans will spend $8,160 per capita on health care this year. That's only a 4.5% jump from 2008... but it doesn't change the fact that we're spending more per person than every other developed country (sorry, old numbers—feel free to submit updates!). And a big chunk of that money ($700 billion, by one estimate) is wasted, doing nothing to make a single person live better or longer.

Want to boost the economy? Reform health care. President Obama's push for health information technology will help; so will switching to a single-payer, not-for-profit health coverage system. Mr. Obama, it's time to shake things up!

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Free" Market Health Care: Fewer Doctors, More Paperwork

Among the arguments fired my way against single-payer universal health coverage is that the government wouldn't pay enough to keep doctors in business.

It is true that public health systems like in Canada, Britain, France, and pretty much everywhere else in the civilized world pay less to practitioners. An essay I'm reading this morning says public systems pay doctors and hospitals a third of what they receive in the U.S. So folks in those countries with public health systems must have a heck of a time finding a doctor or a hospital bed... right?


Although some think the United States has the largest number of doctors, we actually have fewer physicians per 1,000 population than the European average (2.4 vs. 3.1), about the same number of nurses per 1,000 (10.5 vs. 9.7), and fewer hospital beds per 1,000 (2.7 vs. 3.9) [Arthur Garson, Jr., and Carolyn L. Engelhard, "You Get What You Pay For?" Governing.com, February 2009].

Garson and Engelhart also note that "free" market health care doesn't exactly get us more efficiency: 24 cents of every American health care dollar pays for administrative costs, the paperwork and bureaucracy that's worse in our uncoordinated private system than in the centralized, standardized public systems of our global neighbors.

$528 billion a year, on paperwork instead of prescriptions. And we prefer to haggle over the $140,000 mistake Tom Daschle's accountant made.

Madison Sidewalk Ramps: Long Way to Go for ADA

The Madison City Commission comes back from its hiatus (no meeting last week due to lack of agenda items—always nice when there aren't enough problems to warrant governing) to discuss, among other things, sidewalks. Tonight's agenda packet includes (pp. 11–13) City Engineer Chad Comes's evaluation of our compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically, the city will look at our progress in getting our sidewalks up to ADA snuff.

We've been doing all right, installing about 36 new sidewalk ramps a year. Comes says the city has some money available outside the planned sidewalk budget to respond to special requests for ramps (so if you're on pedestrian wheels and there's a curb you've been bumping over, give Chad a call!).

But even if we put in ramps at better than the expected 36 per year, we have a ways to go in rampifying our sidewalks. (Statistic of the day!): Comes reports that Madison currently has 1061 locations where sidewalk meets road. 74 for them fulfill ADA standards. 620 of those intersections have ramps but fail to meet all the standards. 367 are just plain not accessible.

Now 131 of those sidewalk-road intersections are along state highway, where the city says the state should bear the cost of the any ramp installation or upgrade. (Maybe the stimulus striping crew can bring jackhammers and bust out the curbs on their way by.) But we're also requiring homeowners to put in more sidewalks around town, which will require more ramps. So at current rates, it could take 10 years just to upgrade the non-accessible intersections. Lots of work to do!

Father Gallagher Back in South Dakota, May Sabotage Stimulus

Father Cathal Gallagher was the subject of great to-do in the South Dakota media last spring, when government foul-ups led to the Irish priest's uprooting from a happy congregation in DeSmet and near deportation before people power got Washington to wake up and issue the good father a green card.

Now that Sioux Falls paper reports Father Gallagher will be spending some time in South Dakota, filling a role that seems to suit him well, filling in from parish to parish, helping out wherever and whenever he's needed. Father Gallagher does seem to have a little circuit rider in him. He says he's used to traveling so much so that he still hearkens to his missionary days in Japan, "where the unwritten rules was to never accumulate more belongings than one could carry" [Josh Verges, "Irish Priest Returns to South Dakota," that Sioux Falls paper, 2009.02.20].

Now you know why the government wanted to deport him: it wasn't his nationality, but his anti-consumerism. Go around preaching against materialism like that, and who knows what would happen to the economy and sales tax revenues!

Sibson Almost Supports Stimulus... Almost

On my drive up to Watertown to judge NFLs Friday p.m., I was pleasantly surprised to hear the dulcet tones of certified public accountant, holder of master's degree in accounting, and arch-conservative blogger Steve Sibson on the WNAX news blip. The hardest working man in South Dakota blogging was lobbying Pierre in person, testifying before the Senate Transportation committee in opposition to SB 201, which would raise motor vehicle fees and the gas tax in 2010.

And for just a moment, I thought I heard the Sibster embracing big government and stimulus money:

We need to go fight for maintenance of our roads for our counties. We must say to the federal government, hey, knock off the strings. We here in South Dakota know what's best with the money that you give us for our Department of Transportation. Let us determine how to spend that money.

What? What?!? Was I hearing Sibby talk like every other good Republican in this state, embracing federal welfare money over paying for what we need with our own local tax dollars? That worldview shaker was almost enough to make me do another tailspin on snowy-slick Highway 81.

But then I reviewed the full committee audio and found the populist Grange farm media had simply soundbitten Sibby into near Marxism. Our man Steve opened his testimony with his usual lucid statement of principles:

As a fiscal conservative, I believe that one of the roles of our limited government is the roads.

...followed by...

We are in the middle of a recession. Everybody's tightening their belts in the private sector....

The best government is local government, and I have full faith in our counties to do the right thing, and they do need some help out there, my friends.

Careful, Sibby: channeling John McCain there.

So Sibby crafts a relatively benign and rational combination of accepting federal assistance while maintaining local control. But then the message unravels. After saying the counties are hurting and roads need work, Sibson responds to a senator's question by suggesting we reject the stimulus money and let other states waste it. Who needs road repair or a temporary boost in employment? (Am I seeing some hands go up at Gehl?)

Senate Transportation voted SB 201 on to the Senate, 6 to 1. The lone vote giving Sibby love: Democrat Frank Kloucek.

You win some, you lose some. But Steve Sibson is making the effort, and that I admire. Keep it up, Steve!

Hear Sibby Live in this SDPB audio from Friday's hearing (maybe two thirds in).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More Reason to Read SD Blogosphere: Northern Profs Discuss Incarceration

Professors David Newquist and Ken Blanchard remind us of the usefulness of the South Dakota blogosphere for sharing intelligent civil discourse. Dr. Newquist's thoughtful Thursday observations on incarceration inspire Dr. Blanchard to respond with a three-part (so far) series on the topic. I recommend reading both authors' works.

We build knowledge in conversation and interaction. The for-profit mainstream media don't (and don't want to?) give us that. When's the last time you saw KELO and KSFY or the Press and Dakotan and Daily Republic develop a story together? In the blogosphere, as Northern Valley Beacon and South Dakota Politics contend and critique, they also collaborate, building knowledge together not as a finished consumer product or platform for advertising, but as an evolving understanding that all South Dakotans can share and contribute to.

Among the key points the good professors bring out:
  • NVB notes that South Dakota incarcerates twice as many people as North Dakota. 6.3% of our state workforce and 7% of the state budget go toward prisons.
  • SDP points to Census figures that between South and North Dakota, South Dakota has a much higher rate of violent crime while North Dakota has a much higher rate of property crime. "[I]t would appear," observes Dr. Blanchard, "that North Dakotans are both less violent on average and less respectful of their neighbor's property." In his intelligence and restraint, Dr. Blanchard misses the chance to say, "That's what you'd expect from those income-taxing North Dakota socialists."

Are You Going to Eat That Pork Chop?

Governors Jindal and Barbour have said they may reject some of the stimulus money. That does take some serious brass. Let's watch closely to see whether this political grandstanding turns into actual policy.

In the meantime, Governor Rounds, the next words out of your mouth should be, "We'll take it. We'll take your money." That's what Governor Granholm of Michigan is saying. If Louisiana and Mississippi don't want more money to help the unemployed, I'm sure the folks here who've been laid off from Gehl, Falcon, Terex, etc. can put those states' shares to good use in the South Dakota economy.

Keep that in mind, Governor Rounds, when you have dinner with President Obama tonight. The table's set, and Washington's cooking, so if your pals at the table aren't eating, feel free to take seconds.

Update 10:13 CST: Arnold's on the ball: Gov. Schwarzenegger's saying he'll take any leftovers, too. Food fight!

Small-Town Socialism: Clark Opens Community Store

Back in January, we learned of bowling-alley socialism in Delmont (which has its 40th Annual Sausage Supper today! $8 at the door for all the sausage you can eat!). The red tide continues to sweep across the state, as economic challenge makes the good people of Clark acknowledge their inner socialist. According to KELO, about 120 of Clark's (rhymes with Marx) residents and supporters have helped open the community-owned Clark Hometown Variety Store. The Chamber of Commerce is able to cloak the venture in capitalist language—community members bought shares—but according to the April 25, 2008, Clark Chamber of Commerce minutes, community ownership is enforced by a prohibition on any one person owning more than 3% of the available shares in the store.

The store appears to have opened its doors in December, with its grand opening on February 7. No sign of red banners yet, though I wonder if that sign (see photo) might be in Russian: PHCC—Радикальный Новый Советский Союз—Radical New Soviet Union?

Once again, when times get tough, we are all socialists.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Memo to Russ: Yay Online Communication, Boo PDF

My morning browsing reveals a treat at Senator Russell Olson's website: he's posting his Legislative "Week in Review" columns online! That's darn near blogging! Hooray!

Alas, Russ (or his web campaign staff at CommissionSoup) finds a way to make the Web slow and clunky. He posts his columns in the dreaded PDF format. You know, PDF, the file format that requires your browser to open Acrobat reader and grind along as it loads the graphic format of the original paper document.

Now PDF might—might—be acceptable if Russ's people were posting scanned images of the actual newspaper clipping. A little online scrapbooking can be cute.

But Russ's people give us plain scans or converted images of the plain Word document Russ typed for the paper. No graphics, no significant layout... in other words, nothing to justify plugging up your Internet connection with the extra kilobytes.

Russ, perhaps you should direct your CommissionSoup cronies to review these helpful guidelines for using PDFs. You could probably post those nice little columns yourself even faster with a simple blog. More accessible, more immediate... and you could take comments!

Of course, Russ at least puts something online. Gerry, Mitch: let's see some online updates!

House Taxation Keeps Ag Income Tax

Representative David Lust (R-34/Rapid City) and Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) were mad enough about the ag income tax (see SDCL 10-6-33.28 through 10-6-33.31) passed by last year's legislature that they tried to get it repealed. That repeal, HB 1294, died in the House Taxation committee yesterday. An 11-4 vote deferred the bill to the purgatorial 41st day of the session, leaving South Dakota on track to start assessing taxes on farmers and ranchers based on their potential productivity rather than the market value of their land.

This isn't quite an income tax (and why the Republican legislators who passed it last year couldn't just make a simple income tax instead of this convoluted egghead-heavy rigamarole continues to defy my logic). But it's close enough I remain surprised at the folks who've supported it. Those who think an income tax is the creeping zombie virus those vile Dems would unleash on the good people of South Dakota can try blaming my fellow Lake Herman socialist Rep. Gerry Lange (D-8/Madison) and Dem leader Bernie Hunhoff (18/Yankton) for their votes yesterday against the repeal. But just as responsible for keeping the ag income tax alive are good Republicans like Dan Lederman (16/Dakota Dunes), Brock Greenfield (6/Clark), and Kristi Noem (6/Castlewood).

One local legislator has staked his claim as an opponent of the ag income tax. One of PP's favorite politicians, Senator Russell Olson (R-8/Madison), dissented when Senate State Affairs killed SB 182, the Senate's version of the ag income tax repeal. The only other dissenting vote: another PP favorite, Democratic Senator Nancy Turbak Berry (5/Watertown).

The ag income tax does still face some legislative action. SB 3, which passed the Senate and awaits House action, would jigger some of the numbers but leave the basic assessment methodology intact. But come July 1, 2009, South Dakota will take a step toward slightly more rational and progressive taxation.

Now, when do the rest of us get to replace our property tax with income tax?

Oldham Revives Homestead Act, Clings to Unsustainable Lifestyle

Two cheers and a half for the city of Oldham, where mayor and economic development president (why can't Madison combine those positions?) Roger Eide has announced free lots for building single-family homes. Applications are available online.

Why the half-cheer discount? Because Oldham is promoting its free lots program by portraying itself as a convenient bedroom community:

A variety of employment opportunities can be found within an easy commute from Oldham. There are businesses that have located or are expanding in the cities of Brookings, Madison, Sioux Falls, Arlington, Lake Preston, DeSmet and Howard [Roger Eide, City of Oldham, press release, 2008.10.23].

Regular readers know I'm all about our small towns making efforts to attract new residents and keep their local economies alive. Small towns have to build on what they have, and when it comes to jobs, Oldham doesn't have much to offer but proximity to jobs in other towns. Mayor Eide is being straight with prospective homebuyers about job options, and that's to be appreciated. But $4-per-gallon gasoline last summer showed us the limitations of an economic development model based on commuting. Even if experts assure us gas prices won't surge this year, oil and commuting are only going to get more expensive, not less.

Now we've probably got some chickens and eggs here: it's hard to bring new residents to town if you can't offer them jobs, but it's hard to create jobs if you don't have residents to fill them and places for those residents to reside.

If Oldham's neo-Homestead Act can attract new residents and make it possible for a working family or two to build a decent house that they couldn't otherwise afford in Madison or Brookings, then more power to 'em all. But in the long term, Oldham and other struggling small towns will want to be more than sleeping suburbs for bigger towns. They'll need to get creative and find ways to sustain their own local economies, with less dependence on cheap transportation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Deficit Fixed! Rounds Lifts Out-of-State Travel Ban!

That stimulus money must have fixed the South Dakota budget crisis! After rediscovering his support for Birth to 3 and the South Dakota Arts Council, Governor Rounds has made the final declaration that the crisis is over: he's leaving the state! After the dire state fiscal situation compelled the Governor to skip a governors' confab in nearby Omaha and the Presidential Inauguration, Governor Rounds is flying to Washington this weekend for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Never mind that we don't have a budget yet, or that no legislation has passed yet to address the structural deficit. Everything is just fine, say the governor's actions.

Whew! Looks like I can submit those travel requests for academic conferences after all. Hooray!

Mayor Bloomberg Offers Gov't Money to Unemployed Wall Streeters

Shall I throw the class warfare flag? You tell me....

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is reaching out to help the unfortunate in New York City. He's offering $45 million in city money for job retraining as well as seed capital and office space for new business ventures.

The intended recipients of these handouts? New York's unemployed investment bankers, traders, and other Wall Street types whose greed, gambling, and incompetence got us into this economic mess.

Government retraining programs for MBAs who were pulling down six-figure salaries while they wrecked the economy—must be part of Bloomberg's effort to win the good graces of the Republican Party.

Gas Prices: $4 a Gallon Not on Horizon; What About Demand?

At the beginning of the week, AP offered an explanation of why gas prices were inching up even as oil prices appeared to be dropping (main reason: reliance on overseas crude). Another reason gas prices might go up: increased demand. It's not a big surge, but the Wall Street Journal reports we're getting piggish again, with demand inching up above last year's levels for the first time in a while.

Now I want to say, "People! Have you forgotten last July already? $4 a gallon?" But WSJ points out the demand increase is tiny and cites an energy analyst (Tom Bentz, BNP Paribas Commodity Futures, New York) who says "A return to $4 a gallon is probably not something we're going to see anytime soon."

Well, far be it from me to stoke fear and pessimism in the midst of a recession.

But near be it to me remind you that conservation is a good idea, no matter what numbers go up on the big green BP sign. Spring is coming: put down the keys, wire that basket onto your bike, and ride to the grocery store. Parents, park your teens' jalopies and tell them they can walk the mile to school. Spend your money on something that will last, like a nice windmill for your house.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stimulus Highway Money Coming to Lake County... for Stripes

The state Transportation Commission just released its first list of highway projects to spend the stimulus money. The 100-million-dollar list of shovel-ready projects is just over half of the $189 million allotted to South Dakota. There are some big replace and repave projects, some chip seal and overlay, lots of signs and fences...

...and for Lake County? Highway 34 gets money... for stripes. Item 28 lists $290,000 for restriping 45.7 miles of road in Davison, Gregory, Hutchinson, Lake, Miner, Union, and Yankton counties. (They better be bike lane stripes!)

Lake County receives no mention in any of the other 45 items on the list.

Highway 34 committee? If you want your four lanes to Colman, you fellas might want to get on the horn to Pierre about that remaining $89 million.

How to Beat an Abortion Ban (Pay Attention, North Dakota)

Every now and then I check back in on Pastor Steve Hickey hoping for a few laughs. I should know better.

This afternoon we get the standard misuse of language (nobody is pro-abortion), Bob and Steve talking to themselves, and then someone goes off the rails, commenting that "Witchcraft, paganism, and the goddesses doomed the fate and destiny of babies and women in South Dakota in November."

What twists their righteous knickers today is an article in Politics Magazine by Connie Lewis and Nathan Peterson explaining how they built the coalition and campaign that beat South Dakota's retread abortion ban in 2008. They lay out the key points of their winning campaign:
  1. Focus on the law's consequences.
  2. Exercise extreme message discipline.
  3. Develop a broad coalition.
  4. Use grassroots communications to fill in the gaps.
Not exactly profound or revolutionary campaign strategy. Pastor Hickey thinks he has hay to make out of Lewis and Peterson's statement (admission, Hickey would call it, wishing he could play Inquisitor) that "avoiding debate over the morality of abortion" to focus instead on the specific consequences of Initiated Measure 11 was part of their successful strategy.

But the campaign strategy is nothing folks couldn't figure out, and Hickey's response is nothing Lewis, Peterson, and the rest of us haven't heard before. Reading this article, one can almost hear Lewis and Peterson saying, "Bring it. We know how Hickey and Unruh will respond, and we don't care. We won, and we can win again. This strategy works, and this message makes sense."

"Avoiding debate over the morality of abortion" was exactly the right strategy. South Dakotans weren't being asked to vote on a declaration of morality. They were being asked to vote on a poorly written, impractical law that would not achieve its purported aims. People voted the ban down because, even if they don't like abortion (and again, nobody likes abortion), they recognized that the law on the ballot was bad public policy. Sometimes a childishly simple morality isn't enough to formulate practical, effective laws.

Alas, our neighbors in North Dakota are now refighting this battle. Defenders of women's rights in ND, take your cues from Lewis and Peterson. We don't get to dress up our crusade in Morality and Scripture. We have to settle for rationality and plain old practical government.

Fortunately, as Lewis, Peterson, and the 2008 South Dakota election prove, that sometimes complicated but always rational message does indeed resonate with a healthy majority.

For a view from the other side, read the admission explanation from public affairs consultants Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint that fundraising, message control, and focus on consequences were just as important to the success of California's Prop 8.

Stimulus Tax Credits Help Wind Power Big and Small

The excuse we get in South Dakota for not developing wind power sooner is the lack of big transmission lines to carry the huge amounts of electrivity our prairie winds can generate to the big-city power markets. My response has generally been that we should focus on building small wind farms and single-dwelling turbines to power our local needs first, then worry about exporting. power.

The stimulus law may help with both. President Obama's signature Tuesday extended the production tax credit for wind energy through 2012, which will help the industry do a little more long-term planning and investment. The Department of Energy is also directed to study the electrical grid and make recommendations for expanding access to renewable power sources. On the home front, the stimulus law extends a 30% tax credit for residential renewable energy systems, including wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal units, and fuel cells. (Read more from Kevin Eber, Department of Energy, "Clean Energy Aspects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act," RenewableEnergyWorld.com, 2009.02.18.)

Now you still have to spend green to get green. The rooftop Swift Wind Turbine and Energy Ball featured in Saturday's NYTimes cost $10K–$12K to purchase and install, and you might have to haggle with Zoning Officer Deb Reinicke to get the county to let you put up a 30-plus-foot tower to catch better wind. But the Swift runs at 35 decibels, which addresses some of the noise concerns over big turbines and, as one owner reports, is less noisy than the groaning in the wind of the barn he installed the turbine on.

If some Republican governors want to give back their stimulus money, great: all the more for the rest of us to invest in energy independence.

Rounds on Fargen: A Study in Executive Snark

It's Snarky Thursday here on the Madville Times!

I mentioned Governor M. Michael Rounds's neener-neener to State Representative Mitch Fargen (D-8/Flandreau). For your enjoyment, here's an excerpt from the governor's letter to the editor:

I understand the legislative process is sometimes complicated and freshmen [sic] legislators have a steep learning curve. Let's just chalk these misstatements and opinions by Rep. Fargen to inexperience and a healthy dose of political rhetoric that will, hopefully, change as your representative becomes more familiar with the process. [Gov. M. Michael Rounds, letter to the editor, Madison Daily Leader, 2009.02.16, p. 3].

Oh, I think Mitch will get plenty familiar with the process: if he keeps talking straight and fighting for what's right, the voters of District 8 will keep sending him back to Pierre for many years to come.

(And note that, in Governor Rounds's world, "opinions" are a product of inexperience. Of course.)

Pure Envy: Local Paper Ignores Local Online Authors

Warning: the following blog post contains envious, self-serving snarkification. Parental discretion is advised.

Our proud local paper, the family-owned Madison Daily Leader, does respectable work covering Lake County's arts and culture scene. Among its coverage of such events as the one-act plays and the Jane Austen society, the Leader gives regular coverage to what appear to be a statistically disproportionate number of published authors. Jon Lauck received well-deserved coverage for his published analysis on the 2004 Daschle–Thune Senate race. Donald James Parker has received coverage for his Christian fiction. Former DSU prof Rev. Kenneth Thurow was just in last week's paper for his new book, A Place at the Table: Scripture, Sexuality, and Life in the Church. There have been a couple other such stories in the print edition (I can't find them in the online archives) about local authors successfully publishing their works.

Unfortunately, "successfully publishing" is not quite the mark of distinction it might once have been. With the notable exception of Mr. Lauck, every local author recently featured in the Madison Daily Leader is self-published. Mr. Parker publishes and distributes his own books under his own banner, "Sword of Spirit Publishing." Rev. Thurow published his own book through iUniverse, an online company where anyone with $599 can turn any collection of pages into a "published book." To turn such self-financed publishing efforts into news stories seems more like free advertising than recognition of a cultural achievement.

The editorial staff at the Madison Daily Leader could argue that just writing a book is a newsworthy achievement. Having the gumption to print up copies and subject your work to public scrutiny and criticism is all the more admirable.

Why, then, has the Madison Daily Leader not turned its attention to a whole other population of self-published authors, the bloggers of Lake County? If publishing one's own work is newsworthy, then local online authors John Nelson, Matt Hendrickson, and Matt Paulson certainly deserve front-page coverage for their efforts. I would hazard a guess that Mr. Paulson is making more money on his self-published online essays than any of the self-published paper authors the Leader has covered. (Update: Ah! The Leader did venture online to give Mr. Paulson some attention when he launched his AmericanConsumerNews.com!)

And then there's the Madville Times. I'm now in my fourth year (and 2,120th post) of writing about local and state news (with, yes, an increasing dose of national politics). My writings here have been picked up by KELOLand.com, one of the biggest (albeit now bankrupt) media outfits in South Dakota. My StatCounter numbers tell me this site received 10,921 unique visitors. 4,322 of those visitors were entertained or aggravated enough to come back for more.

Four thousand readers. In one month. Still small potatoes compared to South Dakota's big-dog bloggers, but tell me 4,000 people picked up one of DJP's books last month. I'm as self-published as any author Jon Hunter has featured on his pages, and I generate more conversation, more hits, and more attention for Madison. I also do it without paying for paper.

So why on earth would our proud local media have not covered this new, vibrant field of self-publication? Could it be that I'm not the only one suffering a little envy here?

As I said, I seek to take nothing away from my neighbors who have the intelligence and courage to write and publish. But what's good for all the paper geese is good for us e-ganders. Mr. Hunter, it's time for some blog coverage!

There, that's out of my system. Back to the news!

p.s. Speaker at DSU's upcoming spring convocation: Dan Schoepf, DSU graduate, successful consultant, and author of two books—Sales: America's Other National Pastime, and How to Build a DYNAMITE Sales Team... both self-published.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

State Affairs: Yes Birth to 3, No Pipeline Tax

Whew! Our man Russell Olson (R-8/Madison) and the Senate State Affairs committee had a busy Wednesday! Let's review the votes:
  1. Birth to 3 victory! Russ joined the committee in blowing a unanimous raspberry at the governor and approving SB 203, a bill to fully fund the Birth to 3 Connections program. No quarrel there—that's a program worth paying for.
  2. National Guard: guns before butter? Russ joined the slim 5–4 majority of the committee who voted to kill SB 166, a measure that sought to limit the National Guard's ability to relocate and deactivate its units in South Dakota. I'm with the Republicans on this one: the bill seemed to put economic considerations above the Guard's best judgment on readiness and resource use.
  3. Piepline tax still too taxing: Things go downhill from here. Russ helped kill SB 171, the two-cent-per-barrell pipeline tax. So again, to be clear: Russ thinks local businessmen can survive a new 4% tax on their service, but thinks a multi-billion-dollar foreign oil corporation can't bear a 0.05% tax on its product. I'm still waiting for someone to clear that up for me.
  4. Stimulus: Do we even have a Plan A yet? Russ may also be viewed as the deciding vote in killing SB 197, which would have created a commission to figure what the heck to do with all that federal stimulus money. O.K., maybe we don't need another commission. But I assume somebody in Pierre is working on the stimulus money... right? Couldn't the legislature assert its proper fiscal perogative on this one instead of waiting for the governor to call a special session?
Lots of substantive bills to deal with yet... and we haven't even seen the budget yet. Stay tuned!

E.T. on Ice at Moonbase Madison!

What started as a few seemingly innocuous change orders to Madison's new outdoor pool has become the cover-up of the century. Cleverly hidden behind the splashy façade of family fun, the city of Madison has become the new Area 51: Moonbase Madison! Aliens in our midst!

Here the Madville Times penetrates the mighty defenses of this top-secret installation to snap the first public photos of the labyrinth of high-tension polymer quarantine tunnels linking the xenobiological examination chambers now dug into the site of the old Madison pool. The location at the edge of Madison is ideal, given the proximity to sources of Reese's Pieces and pizza, the primary food of the captured aliens and their military captors, respectively.

Here I risk life and limb clinbing a nearby high-altitude vortical youth training tower for a better view of the facility. The blue facility appears to be the main examination/interrogation chamber. The mysterious green marker in the foreground appears to be a grave marker (some of the creatures are very thin). In the lower right, you can see one of the military guards, who popped up the moment my camera began snapping. If I hadn't had my bicycle to speed my escape, I might right now be undergoing cross-species mutation experiments. Whew!

HB 1257: Guns on Campus Again!

The House Education committee takes up HB 1257 today, another attempt by Rep Thomas Brunner (R-29/Nisland) to impose on the world his crazy view that the best way to improve security on our university campuses is to create crossfire zones with dozens of untrained 18-year-old shooters. Brunner saw a similar House bill defeated last year and another Senate Bill just last month. Rep. Brunner, can't you get the message? And don't you have a budget to be working on?

Update 12:30 CST: House Education does the right thing and kills HB 1257 11-3. Hooray for Mitch Fargen and the rest of the level heads on the committee. Rep. Brunner, you're 0 for 3. Sit down and budget.

By the way, I'm put on the trail of this latest gun bill by the latest addition to KELO's "Issues Blogs," the most vomitous mass of bigoted ignorance currently engaging in pajamas media in South Dakota, Rutland public school teacher and long-time beneficiary of your tax dollars John Walker. After threatening to shoot the editors of Newsweek and all Democrats (at least that's all I can divine from his oh-so-macho "Lock and Load!"), Walker gets confused and talks about the 2008 bill.

And KELO picks that yahoo over Sibby?!?

Update 2009.02.22: Walker very quietly deletes the original post. No correction, no apology.

When Do We Get Our Stimulus Checks? Actually...

Remember those promises Candidate Obama made about cutting taxes for 95% of Americans? Debate raged on this site about whether Obama was being honest or just pandering to the electorate.

Well, my H&R Block newsletter says that the new stimulus law will provide 95% of Americans with at least one tax break. 27 days in, promise kept.

Now don't go rushing to the mailbox: we're not getting checks this time, at least not many of us. Social Security recipients are supposed to get an extra $250 check as soon as Treasury can print them. The rest of us, alas, will just have to settle for bigger paychecks. We'll get our stimulus a little at a time, as the government tells employers to withhold $13 less a week from our checks, starting in June.

Of course, I have a job, so I don't need stimulus as much as the folks at Gehl, Laser Cut, Falcon Plastics, Citibank, and elsewhere who've lost their jobs. The stimulus law sends them help first, in the form of immediate boosts to unemployment benefits ($25 a week) and the 9-month 65% subsidy of COBRA health insurance. Sounds fair to me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Don't Trust Spellcheck: Sorry to Rain on Your Parade...

I receive an e-mail this afternoon. The correspondent makes a polite request, then ends with this line:

Thank you for your time and I am sorry for the incontinence.

Oh my. And I thought that puddle was snow melting.

Drive Pro-Life II: Americans Drive Less, Die Less

Back in August, I featured a study by Dr. Michael Sivak of U.Michigan that found a correlation between high gas prices and a steep drop in traffic fatalities.

That trend apparently continued through the autumn gasoline price collapse, as economic woes took over to keep Americans driving less. The results (according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, reported in last night's print MDL, but making USA Today a couple weeks ago): traffic deaths down in 42 states last year, and down by double-digit percentages in 25 states (including South Dakota!) and DC.

In South Dakota, 121 people died on the road last year. That's 25 fewer than in 2007. How many more lives might we save if we kept gasoline at $4 a gallon (gas tax, Governor Rounds?)?

A lot of lives were saved just by being on the road less: over 13 months ending last November 30 (o.k., what statistician counts things in 13 month intervals?), Americans drove 112 billion fewer miles... and that's only a 3.4% decrease! But people were apparently driving more safely on the miles they did cover: deaths per 100 million miles also decreased 6.5%. Safer cars, more safety features, sure, but also less leadfooting: the GHSA survey cites "multiple states" reporting lower highway speeds.

So nationwide, we saved a few thousand lives by driving less... and less stupidly. See? High fuel prices and a recession aren't all bad. But I wonder: how many more lives might we lose from suicide, crime, less access to health care, or other trouble that might increase due to economic woes?

Figure that out when you get home. For now, just put down the phone, ease up on the pedal (unless you're bicycling!), and focus on the road.

Dairy Farmers Sinking, Industry Milking System

AP reports that falling milk prices are sending milk cows to the slaughterhouse for hamburger:

Dairy farmers say they have little choice but to sell part of their herds for slaughter because they face a perfect storm of destructive economic forces. At home, feed prices are rising and cash-strapped consumers are eating out less often. Abroad, the global recession has cut into demand for butter and cheese exported from the U.S.

Prices for milk now are about half what it costs farmers to produce the staple, and consumer prices are falling. Unless the market can be bolstered, industry officials project that more than 1.5 million of the nation's 9.3 million milking cows could be slaughtered this year as dairy operators look to cut costs and generate cash [Tracie Cone, "Dairy Cows Head for Slaughter as Milk Prices Sour," AP via Yahoo News, 2009.02.16].

(See? The capitalist system really does eat labor. Ungulates of the world, unite!)

The Tri-State Neighbor reports that milk prices for producers have dropped from $17–$18 per hundredweight last year to $10 per hundredweight right now. Walter Bones of Turner County Dairy says producers are losing three to four dollars per cow per day, and those losses have driven 30 South Dakota dairy farms to shut down just this year.

Cone reports that as of February 2, farmers were getting about 80 cents a gallon, while the California Department of Food and Agriculture estimates the total cost to produce a gallon of milk is $1.65. That's not a winning business model.

Of course, you'll notice that the industry and the grocers manage to make sure the farmers take the brunt of the price decline. Anyone paying half price for milk at Sunshine compared to last year? Anyone see cheese (or burgers, given the increased supply) dropping in price? I didn't think so.

Rounds Brushes Off Fargen as Inexperienced Freshman

Remember that really nice guy we liked so much more than those mean and nasty fellas, Kirby and Barnett?

Governor M. Michael Rounds graces the editorial page of Monday's Madison Daily Leader (Jon! you really need to put these letters online!) with a snarky response to District 8 Representative Mitch Fargen's criticism of the governor in last week's paper. I don't have a copy in front of me, so lengthy excerpts will have to wait. But the governor's several-inch response boils down to calling Fargen an inexperienced freshman who needs to learn his place.

I get a bit cranky when I hear that kind of talk from veteran legislators. The state legislature is not high school or a Greek frathouse. Sure, Mitch is a freshman legislator. But he is also the elected representative of over 20,000 South Dakota citizens. Whether he has served that role for eight weeks or eight years, his voice—our voice—matters as much as anyone else's in Pierre. Fargen appears to already know his proper place: to do the job we elected him to do, to speak up and fight for our interests, interests that aren't served terribly well by a governor who would tax the poor and cut funding for education, Birth to 3, and the arts (and, for the many Madisonians for whom this is a big deal, just won't get behind the Highway 34 expansion, no matter how many stickers John Goeman hands out).

Fargen criticizes the governor on policy; Rounds still thinks he's homecoming king. Who'd got the guts again?