Our team of 10 at my publishing office starts every morning with a brief meeting.
We sit around a table and talk about what we plan to do, how we hope to do it and what the outcome should be. And every time we finish a magazine, we sit down for a noon lunch to review the finished product page-by-page to see whether we accomplished our day-to-day goals.
That’s transparency in its simplest form. Everybody knows what everyone else is doing, and we regularly measure our accomplishments and shortcomings.
Most successful businesses do some variation of what we do at South Dakota Magazine in Yankton. But my experience as a state legislator is that governments and politicians often only pretend to do the same. They share lots of numbers and nonsense. But transparency in Pierre is sorely lacking.
The sorriest example is in the field of economic development. Millions of dollars given to the Trans-Canada pipeline are a glaring example. Nobody knows just how much TransCanada is going to wind up with, which is remarkable in itself.
No legislators even knew that TransCanada was getting corporate welfare until we passed an open government law in 2009. A reporter then asked for information on a little-known tax rebate program for very large companies. When the Revenue Department was forced to reveal the information, we discovered that it was costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year. TransCanada alone eventually might qualify for $30 million or $40 million.
True transparency works wonders. As soon as the TransCanada boondoggle was discovered, lawmakers agreed to sunset the program. No one could defend it. But now the Daugaard administration wants to continue it under a new name – the Large Projects Development Fund – and give millions away at their discretion to projects $5 million or larger.
I have two major concerns with the new program. First, the money comes from the general fund, which otherwise goes to schools and health care. The giveaway will total more than $200 million in the next 10 years, and we all know that schools and health care are woefully underfunded. Education is our best economic development, yet it faces dire cuts.
My second concern is that we don’t have enough transparency in government to determine whether any of our existing economic development funds are being spent wisely. I introduced legislation this year to require that the state provide an economic database to report information and results on loans, grants and tax rebates for economic development, but it was opposed by the administration and died on a party-line vote.
Democrats also offered a bill to prevent campaign contributions from companies that receive no-bid contracts from state government. That also was opposed by the administration and killed.
South Dakota has no restrictions on so-called pay-to-play as other states have. You could write campaign checks to South Dakota politicians who ultimately control the purse strings on economic development programs. In fact, this year, a bill was passed over my objections to allow corporations to write checks of up to $10,000 to PACs that can give money to politicians. Surely, there’s no quid pro quo in South Dakota, but we should have laws prohibiting such conduct.
We learned two things in the TransCanada debacle: that we have a problem and that transparency works. That’s the bad news and the good news.
State Rep. Bernie Hunhoff is Yankton Democrat who has served in the House since 2009. Email him at Rep.Hunhoff@state.sd.us.