PIERRE | When it comes to clout, no other part of the state had the power base that Rapid City, the Black Hills and South Dakota's western ranch counties did in the 2013 legislative session. And with only one working day left in the annual session, it appears that power was put to good use.
House Republican leader David Lust, R-Rapid City, doesn’t think his hometown or West River as a whole enjoyed any special advantage this session.
“I have always struggled with the notion that ‘results’ in the Legislature have anything to do with the geography of leadership,” he said. “I can count on one hand the number of times funding or a project flowed as a direct result of leadership.”
But Lust was just being humble.
When it comes to dollars, Western South Dakota clearly fared well during a 2013 session in which the region boasted powerful posts including House majority leader, House speaker and numerous committee chairs.
Lawmakers approved $2 million for additional aid to counties for pine-beetle suppression, almost exclusively in the Black Hills.
They also secured approval for bonding of a new sewer system at Angostura Recreation Area and for an extension of the Mickelson Trail to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. A new visitor center at Custer State Park was also approved.
One instance where Lust had direct influence was a 2012 bill that earmarked $500,000 to assist the Ellsworth Air Force Base public authority and a bill this session that keeps available to the authority $250,000 that wasn’t yet spent.
Set for now, and the future
As the legislature stands in its two-week break before returning for one final day on March 25, a look at western lawmakers reads like a who's who of legislative influence.
The speaker of the House is Brian Gosch of Rapid City. Lust is House majority leader, and two of the House whips — lieutenants in the leadership chain — are Kristin Conzet and Jacquline Sly of Rapid City.
House committee chairs include Lust, Gosch, Sly, and Dan Dryden of Rapid City, as well as Fred Romkema of Spearfish and Mike Verchio of Hill City. The speaker pro tem — next in line for the top job — is Republican Dean Wink of Howes in Meade County.
Two of the Senate whips are Larry Rhoden of Union Center and Ryan Maher of Isabel. Senate committee chairmen are Rhoden, Maher and Craig Tieszen, Mark Kirkeby and Bruce Rampelberg, all of Rapid City.
The region appears poised to wield power well into the future. Unless outside events somehow significantly reshape matters for 2014 — one example is Kirkeby’s run for mayor of Rapid City this spring — those 13 West River Republicans will be back in the same positions of power next session.
By comparison, Sioux Falls and its surrounding communities in Minnehaha County have just two Republicans in the House power seats: One of the whips, Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids, and one committee chairman, Manny Steele of Sioux Falls.
Four Republican senators from Minnehaha County hold influential posts. Tim Rave of Baltic is the assistant Senate Republican leader, and Deb Peters of Hartford, Mark Johnston of Sioux Falls and Shantel Krebs of Renner also hold influential posts.
As might be expected, much of the influence in the state Legislature tends to be located in the population centers. Add the West River and Minnehaha County power bases together, and there isn't much left to spread around to the rest of the 35 legislative districts.
Still, lawmakers are hesitant to say they fight harder for their hometowns than they do for the state as a whole.
A Minnehaha County legislator, Sen. Johnston said he didn’t notice a particular geographic bias in the 2013 session. Johnston said it seemed the priorities for the city of Sioux Falls were accomplished during the session.
Among them: getting Sioux Falls municipal employees accepted into the South Dakota Retirement System; recovering capital costs for regional wastewater systems; putting into place the collection allowance payments to businesses that remit sales tax; and formally establishing the new Good Earth State Park south of Sioux Falls.
Johnston said the funding increases for public schools, including a new bonus factor for schools that have higher expenses for students whose first language isn’t English, were a positive step.
“We all work hard to serve our constituents,” he said.
Power is transitory
One district outside the population center where there is an unusual concentration of leadership positions, however, is the cluster of eight counties whose voters elected Republicans Justin Cronin of Gettysburg and Charlie Hoffman of Eureka to the House and Corey Brown of Gettysburg to the Senate.
Brown is the Senate president pro tem, a position that holds almost as much power as House speaker (the lieutenant governor is president of the Senate). Cronin is the assistant House Republican leader, and Hoffman is a committee chairman.
On the other hand, consider the plight of Brown County.
More powerful in the 1980s than Pennington County or Minnehaha County are today, Aberdeen and its surrounding farm and ranch country now don’t have any local legislators in leadership spots or as committee chairs. Both Lust and Gosch grew up in Aberdeen but call Rapid City home now.
Power also is transitory in the modern era of legislative term limits, which bar a lawmaker from being elected to the same chamber more than four consecutive terms.
Between turnover and new district boundaries drawn after the 2010 census, Minnehaha County currently has 10 first-year legislators, all Republicans. Assuming most or all continue to be elected, they likely will emerge as a new base of power in the next three to five years.
For now, power is diffused through most of the rest of South Dakota. Eight of the 35 districts don’t have any legislators in either party who are in any sort of leadership post or committee chairmanship.
And five districts have only Democrats in leadership slots, a situation that hasn’t proved to be a strength very often in a state where Republicans have controlled the Legislature completely for more than three decades, aside from a two-year break in the Senate in 1993-94 when Democrats had a majority.
That may be because the Democratic leadership tends to come from rural backgrounds.
The northeastern counties in District 1 have Senate Democratic leader Jason Frerichs of Wilmot. And District 21 in the deep south-center of the state has the two assistant Democratic leaders, Rep. Julie Bartling of Gregory and Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke.
What happens to the rest of the positions of importance is they get spread among Republicans, typically from larger population centers.
Codington County has a pair of committee chairmen in Sen. Ried Holien of Watertown and Rep. Roger Solum of Watertown.
Davison County has a committee chairman in Sen. Mike Vehle of Mitchell. Brookings County has two committee chairmen in Rep. Scott Munsterman of Brookings and Sen. Larry Tidemann of Brookings.
Yankton County has a committee chair in Republican Sen. Jean Hunhoff of Yankton and the House Democratic leader, Rep. Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton. They are in-laws by marriage.
Lake County is likewise two-party with Senate Republican leader Russ Olson of Wentworth and first-year Democratic Rep. Scott Parsley of Madison, who is a House Democratic whip.