Home > SD 2014 Ballot, South Dakota > A look at opposing views, reasons to keep South Dakota’s School and Public Lands

A look at opposing views, reasons to keep South Dakota’s School and Public Lands

August 22, 2014

At the beginning of this month Todd Epp wrote an excellent article about the Libertarian Party having an opportunity to eliminate the School and Public Lands (S&PL) Commissioner position. As Epp noted it is not a new idea, but it is definitely worth having that discussion again. Here is a portion of Epp’s article I find most relevant to the discussion:

Further, the Libertarian school and public lands candidate could campaign that they would liquidate all of South Dakota’s school and public lands (and mineral and oil) leases as they expired in an orderly fashion. Those funds could either go into an education trust fund for investment and then disbursement to the state’s schools. The state investment board could invest the funds. They seem to do a good job of that, based on their past track record for the state.

Eventually, state government would be smaller and it would be out of the landlord business, with the lands and leases going into private hands to those who paid the highest price on the open market. The invisible hand of the marketplace will take over and those buyers will develop their new properties to, supposedly, their best and highest uses—and pay taxes.

What could be more Libertarian than that?

Since Epp did such a great job writing about the pro side of this debate I thought it would be interesting to find out a different side of the story. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the idea set forth by Epp’s article, but I also support looking at all viewpoints. While at the Brown County Fair I interviewed and did blog posts about Ryan Brunner, current Deputy Commissioner of S&PL running for Commissioner, and Rich Sattgast, current SD State Treasurer running for re-election. Both Brunner and Sattgast would be directly impacted by such a change. Also, both believe it would be misguided to eliminate the Commissioner of S&PL position.

Deputy Commissioner of S&PL Ryan Brunner

Deputy Commissioner of S&PL Ryan Brunner

Brunner said it would be unwise to eliminate the Commissioner of S&PL because having a diversified investment portfolio is important to school funding. He noted that revenue coming into the S&PL comes from three different sources: investments, surface rents, and mineral rights. If South Dakota were to sell off its land and mineral rights assets that would mean relying more upon investment income to get money to public schools. Brunner said the surface rents (such as ranch land) provides a steady steam of income for schools while mineral rights (especially oil and gas) have the potential to provide a great amount of revenue in the future. Finally, Brunner said he would recommend against eliminating S&PL “unless you believe investments will never go down”. He has a good point, the State of SD has done very well with its investments over the last few years. But does anyone really believe that will always be the case?

SD State Treasurer Rich Sattgast

SD State Treasurer Rich Sattgast

Sattgast said he doesn’t think eliminating one elected official in Pierre would do anything to reduce the size of state government. In fact he believes getting rid of that position would remove one of only two elected officials on the SD Investment Council (SDIC). The Commissioner of S&PL and State Treasurer both serve on the 8 member SDIC.  Five of the other members are chosen by the Board of the Legislative Research Council. And the eighth member is appointed by the SD Retirement System Board of Trustees. I have to agree with Sattgast that having more people who answer directly to voters on the SDIC is theoretically a good thing.

Another point Sattgast brought up is the fact its much cheaper to elect an official in Pierre than to hire them. It is another point I agree with him on. In Pierre it is not uncommon for elected positions to make far less money than the full-time hired staff members, especially for managerial type positions. In this case the whole S&PL department only has 6 people (including the Commissioner). S&PL is one of the few government agencies it would be difficult to call bloated.

Finally Sattgast brought up that many people would prefer some state agencies have an elected official that answers directly to the voters; instead of to the Governor as they do now. I’ve also spoken with many people over the last two years name off agencies they think should have elected officials at the head. Some examples are the Department of Revenue and Regulation, Department of Insurance, and Game Fish and Parks. Actually Game Fish and Parks is the one I hear most often. It is the states largest law enforcement agency and has the greatest potential for abuse of power. Sattgast wasn’t necessarily saying his thoughts on new elected positions being created, he seemed more to be adding talking points he has heard in this discussion.

Having said all that, I still think it would be good to see the S&PL eliminated at some point in the future. It would allow land to be returned to South Dakota residents that can utilize and care for that land. If someone does lead the charge to make this change it will be a tough battle. A Constitutional Amendment would be needed to get rid of the S&PL Commissioner. That would mean not only getting support in Pierre for such a change, but also educating voters about why such a change would be good. Plus it would have to be done in a way tha and that change won’t negatively impact school funding. For that reason I’ll put this on the long-term wish list.

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