By Bob Mercer, American News Correspondent
12:50 AM EDT, March 18, 2013
PIERRE — When it comes to clout, no other place has the power base that Rapid City, the Black Hills and the western ranch counties do in the 2013 session of the Legislature.
The speaker of the House is Republican Brian Gosch of Rapid City. The House Republican majority leader is David Lust of Rapid City. Two of the House Republican whips — lieutenants in the leadership chain — are Kristin Conzet and Jacqueline Sly of Rapid City.
House committee chairmen include Lust, Gosch, Sly and fellow Republicans Dan Dryden of Rapid City, 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.
Two of the Senate Republican whips are Larry Rhoden of Union Center and Ryan Maher of Isabel. Senate committee chairmen are Rhoden, Maher and three Rapid City Republicans: Craig Tieszen, Mark Kirkeby and Bruce Rampelberg.
South Dakota lawmakers are on a two-week break before they return for the final working day of the session on March 25. Unless outside events somehow significantly reshape matters for 2014 — one example being Kirkeby’s run for mayor of Rapid City this spring — those 13 West River Republicans will be back in the same posts of power next session, too.
Does having all that clout matter? It certainly doesn’t hurt within the Republican caucuses in the House and the Senate. Republicans control both chambers, and western Republicans are big forces in both.
House Republican leader Lust doesn’t think Rapid City or western South Dakota enjoyed any special advantage regarding legislation to his region’s benefit 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.”
Nonetheless, western South Dakota fared well in the 2013 session. Lawmakers approved $2 million requested by the governor for additional aid to counties for pine-beetle suppression.
They also gave the OK for bonding for a new sewer system at Angostura recreation area and for funding for an extension of the Mickelson Trail to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and for a new visitor center at Custer State Park.
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 spent yet. Lust said he brought the original bill because of his familiarity with the base realignment and closure process.
For 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.
There are four Republican senators from Minnehaha County in 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 are committee chairmen.
Add the West River and Minnehaha County power bases together, and there’s not much left to spread around to the rest of the 35 legislative districts.
One district where there is an unusual concentration, 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 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 legislators from within the county in any leadership spots or committee chairmanships. An irony is that both Lust and Gosch grew up in Aberdeen.
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 proven to be a strength very often.
That’s because 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.
What has happened is 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 chairwoman 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.
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.
He listed 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.