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Utility companies told by PUC to share tax savings with customers

Investor-owned companies selling electricity or natural gas to customers in South Dakota should share the savings from federal tax reductions coming in 2018 so that consumers benefit, state Public Utilities Commission members decided Friday.

The three commissioners voted unanimously for a Feb. 1 deadline when companies must provide general information about estimated effects of Congress cutting the federal corporate-income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent.

The commission's staff in turn would work with each company on applying reductions to rates, riders and federal transmission tariffs that South Dakota customers pay.

Chairwoman Kristie Fiegen said the tax changes overall were the largest in 31 years. “We don’t do this every day,” she said.

The proceeding covers MidAmerican Energy, Black Hills Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities, Otter Tail Power, NorthWestern Energy, Xcel Energy and South Dakota Intrastate Pipeline.

Their representatives agreed Friday the companies would be parties in the docket.

The commission held the special meeting specifically ahead of the Jan. 1, 2018, start of the new tax year. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes.

“I think it’s really important we expedite this process,” Fiegen said.

Commissioner Chris Nelson asked for a firm deadline. Commissioner Gary Hanson said that made sense, but suggested flexibility for each company to develop its plan.

“I want to be certain they have enough time,” Hanson said.

Commission analyst Brittany Mehlhaff suggested the scope cover more than basic rates charged by each company. “I understand it may take a while to get all the numbers together,” Mehlhaff said.

The commissioners emphasized they want customers to see savings.

“It would appear this is going to be a significant amount of money that is going to be returned to customers,” Hanson said. He added, “I want the public to know the commission is not twisting arms here.”

Fiegen said each company is in a separate financial and regulatory situation. In some instances, the tax savings might be applied to hold down future rate increases, she said.

“It will look differently with every company,” Fiegen said.

Castle Rock 15 minutes of fame was never capitalized on

Today, Castle Rock is a dried-up and blown-away town if there ever was one.

But this tiny town —with a population of only 4 in the early 1900s— had its 15 minutes of fame when it was the geographic center of America, even if it were only for a few months before that title was moved to Belle Fourche. 

All that remains of the town are some dilapidated buildings along state highway 79 heading north out of Newell.

Located in Butte County, about 40 miles northeast of Belle Fourche, the town was named after the nearby Castle Rock Butte by Henry Jacobsen in 1910.

Unlike mining boom towns in the Black Hills, it was never a prospering economic area and the population stayed low throughout it's existence.

Industry in the small town came in the former for a local newspaper. In 1912, Jacobsen accepted a printing press as payment for a debt he was otherwise unable to collect from the editor of a nearby paper called “The Homesteader.” “The Castle Rock Press” and was edited and printed by Jacobsen and he eventually consolidated “The Redig Press” and “The Moreau News” from Hoover, Butte County after a fire burned down their office.

The new paper was called “The Castle Rock Press and Moreau News,” which was published for 15 years. Over those years, they grew the paper's circulation from 40 to 225 people before being sold to “The Valley Irrigator” in Newell.

Though the town and little business they still knew had to have a little fun. A rodeo was put on in Castle Rock by Jacobsen for a year featuring events like bucking horses, wild cow milking, horse races, calf roping, mule riding, catching a greased pig, and clowns.

Rodeos and newspaper's aside, it was 1959 when Castle Rock entered the history books. Alaska was awarded statehood, and the center of the nation shifted northwest roughly 400 miles from Kansas to Castle Rock near Two Top Butte.

The Lacrosse Tribune from Lacrosse, Wis., announced the change in their paper with a sharp tongue noting “somewhere on these barren, rattlesnake-infested buttes near Castle Rock, S.D., is the spot which will become the new geographical center of the United States when Alaska becomes a state. Until now, Two Top has been known only as a guidepost for ranchers and a good place to hunt rattlers.”

Unfortunately for the Castle Rock, its 15 minutes of fame was just that — short.

Just months later in August, Hawaii was granted statehood and the geographical center shifted to its current location outside of Belle Fourche.

“It was in Kansas, but we had an issue in 1959 when they wanted to include Alaska and that’s when the shift was made to Castle Rock,” explained Jerry Penry, a land surveyor who researched the various places that have been named the center of the nation. “When Hawaii was added, it moved a little further west. Castle Rock really only had it for less than a year and never had any sort of monument.”

Lebanon, Kan. now has a plaque noting itself as the geographical center of the continental United States and Belle Fourche draws in tourists with the Center of the Nation Monument in town even though the actual center is 20 miles outside of town in a farmer’s field.

Unlike these two towns, Castle Rock was never able to capitalize on their claim to fame.

“With the annexing of new states, the geographic center has sometimes been treated like a vagabond being shuffled from one area to another. It has been set in two locations in South Dakota. North Dakota may cast a disapproving eye on South Dakota’s claim to the approximate center, but no one can quibble over the geographical center of the U.S. Unless, of course, we get state number 51,” read The Wi-lyohi from 1969, the bulletin of the South Dakota State Historical Society.

A plaque placed in 1997 by the Butte County Historical Society marks the original site of the Castle Rock post office and store which operated from 1910 to 1972. 

Governor appoints replacement for Tieszen

Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced Friday that he will appoint Michael Diedrich of Rapid City to fill the District 34 vacancy in the state House of Representatives.

Diedrich will succeed the late Craig Tieszen, who died in a November kayaking accident in the Cook Islands. Diedrich will serve during the 2018 legislative session through the end of 2018. The seat will be up for election, along with all of the state's other legislative seats, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Diedrich previously served in the state Senate from 1987-91 and from 1993-95. He is vice president of governmental relations for Regional Health in Rapid City. During his almost seven years at Regional Health, Diedrich has also worked as associate general counsel and as interim VP of the compliance, human resources, and development departments. Diedrich previously spent 11 years in the Rapid City attorney’s office, including seven years as city attorney, and also worked in private business.

“Mike Diedrich has extensive experience in the legislature, in private industry, and in the municipal and non-profit sectors,” said Gov. Daugaard in a news release. “With Rep. Tieszen’s sad passing, I appreciate that Mike is willing to step in and serve in the state House.”

Diedrich is a graduate of Rapid City Central High School and earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of South Dakota. He also holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, and a master of laws in health care law from Loyola University School of Law. 

“Craig Tiezen was dedicated to making a meaningful difference in the lives of others," Diedrich said in the release. "I plan to serve with the same level of integrity, strong values and compassion that he displayed in all facets of life. As a lifelong resident of Rapid City, I am humbled to represent my neighbors and community to positively impact change now and for future generations.”

Diedrich serves on the Rapid City Rushmore Plaza Civic Center board of directors, the Mount Rushmore Society board of directors, the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce public policy and government affairs committees, the South Dakota Health Care Solutions Coalition, the Boy Scouts of America district board, and the board of directors of Black Hills Community Bank.

Diedrich and his wife, Connie, have two sons, Chris and Ross.

District 34 includes western Rapid City, generally including the areas west of Mount Rushmore Road, Dinosaur Hill, and “the gap” on West Main Street, and including sites such as Camp Rapid, Canyon Lake, the Sioux San Hospital, West Middle School and Southwest Middle School.

Ethics laws battle among state's top '17 stories

South Dakota lawmakers were among the state's busiest newsmakers in 2017 — as usual — with a range of moves that included rejecting and recasting some of the measures approved by voters just a few months earlier. The doings in Pierre were far from the only big story statewide, though: ABC settled a lawsuit brought by a South Dakota meat producer over so-called "pink slime," a jury acquitted a consultant who helped an Indian tribe try to develop a marijuana resort, and a fugitive polygamous leader was captured near Yankton.

Here's a look at some of the top stories of the year:


The GOP-controlled Legislature wasn't entirely happy with a ballot measure approved by voters that created a public campaign finance system, established an ethics panel and tightened lobbying and campaign finance laws. Some argued that voters had been fooled by a deceptive campaign and that the measure had constitutional issues. They passed bills that covered some of the same ground, but supporters of the ethics overhaul said it wasn't enough — and vowed to be right back at the ballot box in 2018.

The Legislature passed a $1.59 billion budget that was a few million dollars below what Gov. Dennis Daugaard had envisioned with his first draft, after revenues fell a bit short. Lawmakers managed to approve a minor increase for education and added $1 million to the state employee health plan.

Early in the session, GOP Rep. Matthew Wollmann resigned after admitting sexual contact with two interns. Wollman's departure shined a light on the sometimes chummy ways that legislators and interns interact during the short but intense legislative sessions in Pierre.

Legislators came back briefly in June to create rules governing the use of lakes on private land for recreation, immediately re-opening many waters to outdoor enthusiasts.


The developers of the Dakota Access pipeline finally turned the spigot in March, completing a $3.8 billion project despite months of protests that at one point drew thousands of activists to the Standing Rock reservation on the North Dakota-South Dakota border. Though the pipe now carries oil, opponents continue to try to stop it via the courts.

In November, far away in South Dakota's Marshall County, an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from the Keystone oil pipeline. Federal regulators said a weight installed on the pipeline a decade earlier to stabilize it might have damaged the pipe and its coating. The leak, which didn't reach water, came shortly before a big vote in Nebraska on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Regulators in that state gave the OK to XL anyway.


South Dakota put itself on the leading edge of a move to collect sales taxes from out-of-state internet retailers. The state is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether retailers can be required to collect the taxes in states where they don't have a physical presence. It's a legal fight that has big implications for e-commerce, local retailers, and states that miss out on sales taxes. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia lined up to support South Dakota, which estimates it loses $50 million annually to e-commerce.


Disney-owned ABC and South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. locked horns in a South Dakota courtroom over the network's reports on a beef product that critics dubbed "pink slime." BPI argued that ABC's reports amounted to defamation that hurt its operations and cost employee jobs, and sought $1.9 billion. The two sides settled in June for a settlement of $177 million from Disney — and an unknown amount more from insurers.


Polygamous leader Lyle Jeffs, wanted in Utah for an alleged $11 million food stamp fraud, was captured after a year on the run thanks to sharp-eyed pawn shop workers in Yankton. Jeffs had been living out of his truck when he went to River City Treasures and Pawn to sell two pairs of Leatherman pliers — and gave his ID to do it. Though Jeffs had rearranged his name, one of the employees looked him up and realized he was a wanted man. In December, Jeffs was sentenced to nearly five years in prison.


South Dakota wasn't quite as dry as North Dakota, but farmers and cattle producers in both states had to deal with parched conditions that forced some producers to sell off cattle. Some farmers lost winter wheat.


When the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe wanted to develop a recreational marijuana resort, one of the consultants they brought in was Eric Hagen. While the tribe destroyed their crop and dropped the idea in 2015, Hagen was charged with several marijuana possession charges and faced years in prison. But a jury needed only a couple of hours to clear Hagen of the charges. A colleague who had pleaded guilty earlier wound up having his drug case dismissed after agreeing to pay a fine and court costs.


In April, federal officials in Rapid City announced they had busted 15 people for illegally trafficking eagles and other migratory birds after a two-year undercover operation. The indictments portrayed an illicit trade carried out through face-to-face meetings, emails, texts and personal introductions, with eagle heads or wings fetching hundreds of dollars and sellers also sometimes trading goods such as bear claws, buffalo horn caps or animal hides.