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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

August 5, 2019

Rapid City Journal, Aug. 4

In-city bow hunting for deer worth shot

Rapid City’s urban deer program began a quarter century ago despite concerns about stray bullets and over the objections of dedicated animal lovers. It has continued to evolve, becoming widely accepted and is largely successful at controlling city deer numbers.

Today’s issue is program costs — as much as $30,000 to city taxpayers annually. A proposal going before the city council Monday would reduce the program’s reliance on professional marksmen by issuing a limited number of amateur bow-hunting licenses. The idea first surfaced as a cost-saving measure about a decade ago, but it got hung up on professional vs. amateur shooters.

The concept as presented this time has merit, but should amateur hunters take on an even larger role in the future? Let’s take this one step at a time.

Public requests for shooters to thin the city herd arose in the early 1990s as deer camped out on front yards in daylight and munched on expensive landscapes. The belief then was the 1988 Westberry Trails fire had opened meadows on the city’s western edge, creating a grass highway into the city, allowing deer to grow accustomed to people.

Roadkill carcasses littered neighborhood yards. Pet owners worried about potential injuries from flying hooves. Demand overcame objections, and the shooting started. By the mid-2000s, the herd had been thinned to the point shooting halted. Two years later it was renewed to maintain herd equilibrium. Partnerships which use the meat to feed the poor, meanwhile, had increased the political acceptance.

Are the program’s costs acceptable?

Rapid City spent about $30,000 last winter to harvest 226 deer, or about $130 per animal. A 170-pound deer can yield roughly 50 pounds of venison, yielding a cost of about $2.60 per pound, provided none is contaminated. Ground chuck sells for about $3.75 a pound. If this were purely a feed-the-poor initiative, it would be marginally successful.

As a stand-alone landscape-saving initiative, meanwhile, its returns are also limited. Deer no longer eat all of the town’s unprotected vegetation, but they eat the best of it. Residents have adapted by enclosing gardens, giving up on flowers or living with the damage.

Deer as traffic hazard is another matter. Deer-vehicle collisions lead to about 200 American deaths and $1.1 billion in property damage every year. According to an annual survey conducted by State Farm, the odds of a South Dakota driver hitting a deer are one in 75, or among the highest in the nation. The average encounter, meanwhile, results in $4,300 damage, which gets factored into insurance costs.

That means about 11,760 South Dakotans sustained $50 million in vehicle damage due to deer last year, and if the proportion holds, about 1,000 Rapid Citians sustained $4.3 million in damage. Not all collisions occur inside the city, but the deer program breaks even, theoretically, by preventing seven car-deer crashes.

Altogether, the program is worth the costs.

The proposed archery program would start with 21 permits and be limited to three heavily wooded areas. It wouldn’t generate a lot of revenue, and at the current rate would reduce program costs by about $2,750. The proposal lacks clarity about how the meat would be distributed.

Arrows certainly have less range than rifle bullets, so in the proposed wooded locations, the idea has merit. To be more than a symbolic gesture, however, greater reliance on amateur bow hunters would become necessary. Would that jeopardize the current program’s acceptance? It could.

On the other hand, this is a small measure. Consider it an experiment. Maybe it will succeed famously. As long as the city proceeds carefully and deliberately, it’s worth a shot.


Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Aug. 2

Stop pecking away at state’s petition process

South Dakota’s storied tradition of citizen-led ballot measures is under fire, which we probably should have seen coming.

The state’s initiative and referendum process expanded nearly 50 years ago to include constitutional amendments, allowing the power of the petition to circumvent traditional political channels.

Such bursts of direct democracy make certain folks uncomfortable, most notably Republican power brokers in Pierre. Within the GOP-controlled executive branch and Legislature, preserving a system in which policy is framed by representatives rather than pumped-up citizens is paramount.

This became evident in 2014, when the South Dakota Democratic Party and labor unions boosted South Dakota’s minimum wage law as a ballot measure that was approved by 55 percent of voters.

When state legislators responded soon after by exempting workers under age 18 from the required wage, petitions were gathered to refer the law on the next ballot and succeeded with 71 percent of the vote.

The message was sent, but not fully received.

Initiated Measure 22, an overdue effort to revise lobbying and campaign finance laws while establishing a state ethics commission, had a short life span despite being approved by voters in 2016.

Republican legislators rushed to repeal the measure — some elements of which were under constitutional review — using an “emergency” clause that allowed for the reversal to take effect immediately and prevented a referendum campaign in response.

Just like that, direct democracy took a direct hit. But the battle is ongoing.

Former GOP lawmaker Mark Mickelson brought a petition in 2018 to ban out-of-state contributions to South Dakota ballot committees and got it passed, only to see it struck down earlier this year as unconstitutional. Another ballot attempt to increase the number of votes needed to approve a constitutional amendment was rebuffed by voters.

So the Legislature got busy again, passing a law last session that makes the petition-gathering process more cumbersome. It requires petition circulators to register with the secretary of state by providing personal information, including their address, occupation and contact information, in addition to paying a $20 registration fee, while also lowering the threshold for invalidating signatures.

Political blogger and former Democratic legislative candidate Cory Heidelberger — who successfully challenged the legality of Mickelson’s measure— filed a complaint in federal court asking for a permanent injunction against House Bill 1094, set to become part of the state’s election laws on July 1, 2020.

State House member Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids, who sponsored the legislation, defended it by claiming it will “ensure that our initiative and referendum process will remain a grassroots process for South Dakotans only, and not for law breaking out-of-state political hacks and special interests.”

Of course, such venom is reserved for organizations that threaten South Dakota’s GOP super majority. It was perfectly fine for out-of-state special interest group Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch Brothers, to wage an aggressive battle against IM 22 to the tune of $650,000, not to mention the steady legislative influence of far-right Christian groups such as the Family Heritage Alliance.

To be clear, if non-South Dakota political associations view our ballot process as ripe for manipulation, a little education goes a long way. Voters approved the Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment in 2016 with 60 percent of the vote following an expensive advertising blitz, ignoring concerns about collateral consequences from the victims’ rights legislation.

Put simply, the digital age offers little excuse for ignorance on these issues, and political engagement on the part of average citizens makes a difference. It’s a reassuring concept in the face of traditional party gridlock that has rendered our system sluggish.

To portray South Dakota’s ballot initiative process as a bastion of pure democracy is a bit of a stretch. But in a state controlled by a single party, it’s too easy to silence opposing views and eschew constructive debate when there’s no policy-making alternative to Pierre’s power structure.

Allowing voices to be heard and arguing issues on their merits sounds more American than setting up roadblocks along the way.


Madison Daily Leader, July 29

Legislature should review embezzlement

The crime of embezzlement in South Dakota is lightly punished, in our opinion, and needs a review by the state Legislature.

Embezzlement is dishonestly taking money or other assets by one or more individuals to whom the assets have been entrusted.

The Rapid City Journal reported this weekend that a former secretary of the Oglala Sioux Credit and Finance Office has been sentenced to five years of probation and was ordered to pay $42,100 in restitution to the tribe. Hernandez stole from a tribal program that provides loans and repayment plans for qualified tribal members.

Or consider a case in Sioux Falls, in which a man stole more than $106,000 from his employer from 2009 to 2011. He wrote checks on the company account to pay his personal expenses and credit card bills.

The sentence was he had to give the money back and is on probation for four years. Really? A person can steal $100,000 and if caught, the only real punishment is that he has to return the stolen money?

That appears to be a common sentence: probation and give the money back. It’s hardly a deterrent. In many cases, the embezzler doesn’t get caught at all, or it doesn’t get reported to law enforcement. The worst case is that you have to give the money back.

Even egregious, large-scale thefts are lightly punished. A West River man filed 1,201 fraudulent federal income tax returns for more than $3.6 million in false claims in South Dakota and other states between 2015 to 2018. The sentence was 6 1/2 years in prison, but the actual time served could be less than one-third of that.

The crime of embezzlement may not be violent, but stealing large amounts of money certainly hurts people. In some cases, the theft can hurt several generations of people. Perhaps children or grandchildren of a victim can’t go to college, or can’t start a business. Perhaps a victim won’t be able to afford nursing home care.

We’d like to see the South Dakota Legislature revisit the recommended punishment for the crime of embezzlement and put some teeth in it.

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