Former Governor Rounds Considering US Senate Bid

He’s Not Planning To Run On His Record – Is He?

Former South Dakota Republican Governor Mike Rounds laid down some political markers a couple of weeks ago when he let it be known that he is considering a bid for U.S. Senate in 2014.  Because not only did Rounds say he was considering a Senate run, but he indicated in no uncertain terms that he had no interest in the U.S. House seat held by rubberstamp Republican Kristi Noem.

In making this announcement so early, Rounds clearly was sending a shot across Noem’s bow that he wants Senator Tim Johnson’s U.S. Senate seat whether Johnson runs for reelection again or not – and he doesn’t care if Noem has the same goal.  In other words, Ms. Noem, if you want to run for the Senate seat, you will have to go through Rounds to get it – because he will not back away from a primary race with you by stepping down to the House seat should you vacate it to run for Johnson’s seat.

Moreover, Rounds was clearly sending a shot across the bow of Republican donors in the state to keep their powder dry and not to commit to the personally and politically ambitious Noem too early.  And to show that he is not just releasing trial balloons, Rounds let reporters know that his former Chief of Staff, Rob Skjonsberg, has reserved two Internet domain names for a possible Senate campaign – and  That would be an unnecessary step to take this early unless Rounds wanted to show he was serious in his political deliberations.

Of course in one-party dominant South Dakota, Rounds as a fairly popular former Governor, is a legitimate candidate for any statewide office.  Whether Johnson runs again or not, the Senate seat will be a top tier target of the national senatorial campaign committees and will be a magnet for national money.  In addition, if Johnson does choose to run again, Rounds knows that while Johnson should never be underestimated, the last time Johnson had stiff competition, ala John Thune in 2002, Johnson won in a squeaker.  And Rounds would be stiff competition.

But there should be a word of caution to Mike Rounds should he draw Tim Johnson in a Senate battle.  Running for federal office is different than running for state office.  South Dakota for whatever reasons, keeps handing the keys to the Governor’s mansion to Republicans even though their record of managing state affairs has been deteriorating rapidly in recent years and with recent governors – particularly Mike Rounds and Dennis Daugaard.  (One might think that being “last” in seemingly everything, might give South Dakota voters reason to try new leadership for the state.)

But for federal office, South Dakotans tend to be less enamored with Republican ideological blather particularly with such a strong history of Democrats from McGovern to Abourezk, to Daschle, and to Johnson, who bring home the bacon for our economically poor state far better than Republicans do.

And with the somewhat understated Johnson (something South Dakotans tend to appreciate by the way) all Republican opponents over the years have done is underestimate him and all Johnson has done is defeat them.  Moreover, in a U.S. Senate race, such as we would likely have with a Johnson\Rounds race in 2014, the national media attention from national reporters would be intense.  These reporters, unlike South Dakota political reporters, likely would not give Rounds a pass on his suspect if not disastrous record which includes a series of year after year record deficits in the state.

Of course, if Johnson chooses to retire, all bets are off and the seat becomes a Republican leaner almost instantly regardless of whom the Democrats put up – although there are many political observers in the state who feel former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is waiting in the wings should Johnson step down.  And Herseth Sandlin would be a formidable opponent with a proven record of raising national money.

Yet, regardless of how the field shakes out, Mike Rounds is saying he may well be in the race.  So let’s look at Rounds’ record as Governor for eight years.  Our sense is that whomever the Democrats put up in 2014, Rounds’ record is going to be the cornerstone of the campaign debate – and the Democrat, unlike those who ran against him in his gubernatorial races – will have the resources to exploit that record.

Here are some of the lowlights of Rounds’ record:

–State spending increased a stunning 53 percent during Rounds’ tenure – a number that heretofore had been unheard of in “conservative” South Dakota state government.

–On Rounds’ watch, the good ole boy network flourished.  This sad fact is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Rounds escalated the scandalous practice of conducting state business through the use of no-bid contracts.  These contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually were never bid to get the best price for the state.  Instead, the Rounds Administration gave these bids to political cronies and supporters too often at inflated prices.  It is estimated that the state could have saved as much as $10 million annually by bidding these contracts to the highest and best bidder.

When some in the state media called him to the carpet for this practice, he falsely convinced the media that the state was actually bidding state contracts on his watch.  It wasn’t.  In South Dakota, the state takes what are known as Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from companies who wish to bid on state contracts.  But accepting these does not mean that a contract for services or goods has been “bid.”  RFPs are meaningless unless the state actually treats all of them seriously and takes the lowest and best bid among them.  Our state doesn’t do that.  So, we can take all the Requests for Proposal we want but if there is no trigger which mandates that we have to accept the best bids, we can throw all RFPs into the garbage and continue the unsavory practice of giving inflated contracts to our political cronies and campaign contributors.  That in fact, is what Rounds did.

–An additional reason for the stunning and unprecedented growth in state government during the Rounds’ years, was that the number of state employees mushroomed by 1,500 in eight years.  Seems Rounds needed more workers to implement his bloated state contracts too often given to his campaign donors.

–One perfect illustration of Rounds’ unnecessary and inflated spending practices was that Rounds hired a very highly paid and unnecessary lobbyist during his tenure to lobby for South Dakota in Washington, DC.  Our small state had not had a federal lobbyist before and never felt it needed one.  Yet, Rounds hired one and paid him over $100,000 a year even though there were reports from our federal delegation that their staffers had never seen this person and did not even know who this person was.  So who was he?  A major Republican Party donor to Rounds and to other state Republicans.

–In fact, Rounds was such a big spender in state government that seven of the eight budgets Rounds’ submitted were in deficit including the largest budget deficits in state history  (Only Dennis Daugaard’s first budget deficit was larger).  And no, his deficits were not a consequence of the national recession as he liked to tell reporters – we were in recession only during the final two years of Rounds’ term, not in years one or two or three or four or five or six.

–On the policy front, Rounds displayed very little vision and indeed took dramatic steps backward for the state.  In education alone, the best ticket to a brighter future for our children, funding under Rounds was cut from 39 to 31 percent a drop of almost 25 percent in just eight short years which helped sink South Dakota to last in the nation in teacher pay and last in the nation in per pupil funding.

–On Rounds’ watch, South Dakota fell to the bottom and ranked last in wages of all states in America.

–On Rounds’ watch, South Dakota rose to the top of states whose people must hold two or more jobs just to make ends meet.

–On Rounds’ watch, a higher percentage of South Dakota college students carry massive debt coming out of college than students do anywhere else in the nation.  This is in no small part because on Rounds’ watch, college tuition rose over 50 percent in just eight years.

–On Rounds’ watch, South Dakota freshman and sophomore college students began dropping out of college faster than freshman and sophomore students anywhere in America.

–On Rounds’ watch, poverty soared and shamefully seven of the poorest counties in America now are South Dakota counties.

–Indeed, on Rounds’ watch, poverty rose over 20 percent in the state with South Dakota’s children and seniors being hit the hardest.  The consequences of Rounds’ cuts to Medicaid were that on his watch, poverty rates in South Dakota exploded as did food insecurity among the people of South Dakota with over 20 percent of our kids now going to bed hungry.

–On Rounds’ watch, the Black Hills Playhouse, a 60 year South Dakota educational treasure was boarded up.  But the Governor’s own “playhouse” Valhalla, was remodeled for an almost identical amount of $300,000 that it would have taken to save the people’s playhouse in the Black Hills.

–Always a fan of oil companies but much less so a fan of ethanol, Rounds attempted to raise taxes on ethanol during his tenure which, had he been able to do, would have severely undermined this vital and burgeoning South Dakota industry.  Meanwhile, Rounds pushed through over $30 million in taxpayer giveaways to the foreign oil company TransCanada to build a controversial and dangerous tar sands oil pipeline in eastern South Dakota that they were going to build anyway.  In states like Nebraska where the pipeline was built as well, the state did not give TransCanada a dime.

–On Rounds’ watch and on his command, birth to three and pre-Kindergarten programs were opposed even though South Dakota children are some of the most threatened in the nation and study after study indicates that these two programs have been wildly successful wherever and whenever they have been implemented in other states.  South Dakota is one of only a handful of states that had no birth to three or pre-Kindergarten programs and as a consequence, South Dakota regularly ranked at the bottom of states in its commitment to our youngest and most vulnerable children during the Rounds’ Administration.

–On Rounds’ watch, the state seemed to stockpile state owned and operated airplanes for Rounds’ and his elite government cronies to use.  Rounds, who personally loves to fly, and did so frequently on questionable and personal business, had no problem with the state owning multiple airplanes when surrounding states were selling theirs’ off – including Nebraska (and even states like California).

–Because of Rounds’ irresponsible spending patterns and his massive and record debts during his final years in office, he confiscated nearly $300 million in federal stimulus money sent to South Dakota from the Obama Administration and instead of investing it in programs to help the people of South Dakota ride out the recession, he dumped it into the state’s general fund to mask his deficits and indeed to bail him out of record deficit years.  That money was intended to be invested in the people of South Dakota and in projects that would create jobs and increase their quality of life but Rounds had other plans for it.

–Rounds also took $26 million in federal dollars sent to help South Dakota’s children in light of our woefully underfunded educational system in South Dakota.  Remember he did this while he was cutting education in the state by 25 percent in his eight years in office.  So, what did Rounds do with this federal money that was supposed to be spent on education?  He squirreled it away into the state’s general fund to mask his massive debts.

–But Rounds wasn’t done taking federal money destined to our people and using it for his own purposes.  He also took $21 million federal dollars sent to help with the thousands of our parents, grandparents and poor children effected by the tough economic times and hijacked it into the general fund to once again mask his massive state debt.

–On Rounds’ watch, transparency in state government took a huge hit.  Rounds aggressively fought members of the media who wanted access to the salaries made by state employees. (Perhaps he was hiding things like the fact that during his last two years in office, he froze state employee salaries for all state workers – except for his top 19 executive office staffers to whom he gave $533,000 in bonuses in his last year in office.  These staffers were also some of his best campaign contributors – and Dennis Daugaard’s as well.  These 19 executive office staffers alone gave Daugaard over $60,000 in campaign contributions in 2010.  Those bonuses were clearly in part just a “pass through” of taxpayer money into Rounds and Daugaard’s political pockets.)

–Rounds refused to provide to the media lists of people who stayed for free at the taxpayer built and maintained summer playhouse, Valhalla.

–Rounds refused to provide information on his much ballyhooed trips on South Dakota owned aircraft.  He got burned for using state airplanes for personal use early in his administration (flying them to things like his kids’ sporting events around the state).  So his response to the legitimate public and media outcry was to simply quit publishing the itineraries of trips he took on state planes even though taxpayer dollars were paying for every one of these trips.  With a straight face, he cited security reasons for the change in policy.

We could go on and on.

But you get the picture.  Mike Rounds’ record as Governor was a disaster.  He took South Dakota backwards in almost every major category of state government – except when it came to running up massive debts and exploding the size of state government.

So, if Mike Rounds does decide to run for the U.S. Senate in 2014, it will likely be the first time that a Democratic challenger has the financial resources to give South Dakotans the real truth about Rounds’ horrible record as Governor.  And in that climate, Mike Rounds will find he is in a whole different arena.

For Democrats, the best news of a Rounds 2014 campaign likely would be if Rounds indeed ran on his record.

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