In the wake of the state’s GEAR UP scandal where millions of dollars of federal grant money led to no measurable increase in the number of Native American students who went on to college, House Bill 1214 was introduced to address the conflict of interest issues that have recently became public.
As has been reported in numerous media outlets, two members of the Board of Education that distributed GEAR UP funds also received contracts from the board.
In order to address concerns about how state boards award contracts and if favoritism might be an issue, state representative and likely gubernatorial candidate Mark Mickelson introduced House Bill 1214, which was unanimously passed Tuesday by the House.
The bill, however, does little to change the political culture that enabled Education Board members Kelly Duncan of Northern State University and Stacy Phelps of Rapid City to receive sizable contracts approved by fellow board members.
In fact, the legislation simply codifies past practices while taking a rather tepid approach to disclosing which conflicts of interest are acceptable if a board wants to award a contract to one of its own. And, finally, Rep. Mickelson's bill only applies to 22 of South Dakota’s 130 boards, which makes it difficult to call it transformative legislation.
If this bill is approved by the state Senate and signed into law by Gov. Daugaard, it would make what proponents say are two significant changes that should let the public rest easy.
First, the legislation allows conflicts of interest if the board approves of them. This, however, is exactly what the Board of Education did for its two members. Secondly, once the board authorizes the conflict of interest, it is then entered the public record, which in this case means it is filed with the auditor general who presents it for review to the Government Operations and Audit Committee, which consists of state lawmakers.
In other words, the public would have no direct access to those approved conflicts of interest and the beneficiaries, which falls far short of meeting the transparency standards we expect from state government.
This legislation does not go far enough to reassure the public that lawmakers are serious about changing the culture in Pierre that allowed the GEAR UP scandal to emerge after the suicide of Scott Westerhuis who also murdered his family when he learned his organization, Mid Central Education Cooperative, would lose its contract after questions were raised about finances.
In addition, if it weren't for tenacious efforts by the media, the public likely never would have learned of the conflicts of interest and that the program never delivered on its stated mission of preparing Native Americans for college.
It appears the real beneficiaries of the GEAR UP program were those awarded contracts by the state Board of Education.
This legislation approved by 67 lawmakers in the House is not going to significantly change past practices in Pierre. The Senate needs to take steps to either introduce real reform and real transparency, or it should reject the measure.