A kudos to Secretary Shantel Krebs for how the SOS office is running

Shantel Krebs speaking in Aberdeen. Photo by Ken Santema
Shantel Krebs speaking in Aberdeen. Photo by Ken Santema

During the 2014 election in South Dakota one of more interesting races to watch was that for Secretary of State. In particular I found then State Senator Shantel Krebs to be a good fit for the office (a point many non-Republicans have beat me up on, because they look only at party). Now fast-forward to 2015 and I must say that I am happy with the performance of Secretary Krebs thus far.

On the election side she has just validated two ballot referrals (SB 69 & SB 177). For the purpose of this post I won’t look at either referrals. Instead I want to look at the process used by Krebs. During the whole process Secretary Krebs sent out tweets showing what was being done and gave some insight into the process using her office Twitter account @SOSKrebs. This is the type of transparency I wish more elected officials would embrace. And it is the type of transparency many of us would expect from the office running elections in South Dakota.

Furthermore Secretary Krebs has dramatically increased the efficiency of filing business reports with the SOS office. My wife deals with the office often and has noted that it seems almost like a night and day difference between filing business reports now as compared to a year ago. Additionally she feels the office has become more professional when having to work with them over the phone.

Sometimes I think as a blogger it is important to point out when elected officials are doing things right. This is one of those times and I extend a kudos to Secretary Krebs on how she is managing the SOS office. Hopefully she will continue to increase the transparency and professionalism at the SOS office.

PS. Nothing in this post should be taken to believe I agree with Krebs on all issues. There are still some things I disagree with her on, and probably will be more issues in the future. But I can disagree with someone and still respect how they perform their duties.

SD SB 177 becomes Referred Law 20

Earlier this afternoon SD Secretary of State Shantel Krebs validated the petitions to refer SB 177 (SoDakLiberty Posts) to the voters of SD in the 2016 election.

Here is the tweet Secretary Krebs sent out to announce the completion of the validation process:

This is actually the second law passed out of the 2015 legislative session to be referred to the voters. Just yesterday Secretary Krebs validated the referral of SB 69.

Personally I was not a fan of referring SB 177. Ideologically I am opposed to minimum wage laws. And as I noted before, I believe the youth minimum wage going up (as it will now tomorrow) means fewer hours available for the youth of our state. Additionally I feel more people will simply pay teens in cash and forgo the whole tax system altogether. That would allow business owners to keep their costs down and teens to get more money.

Going into the 2016 election it should be interesting watching the two sides of the youth minimum wage debate. At this time I feel the referral will likely pass. There are two groups of people who will likely vote for the referred law. First there is the group that believes the minimum wage should be the same for everyone, including the youth. Second there is the group that feels the legislature was wrong overturning part of an initiated measure passed by the voters of SD in 2014. The key to second group is if people see SB 177 as overturning the will of the voters, or if SB 177 was in fact the legislature fixing a problem with the law passed by the voters in 2016.

2016 is definitely shaping up to be an interesting election year already with Referred Law 20!

SD Senate Bill 69 becomes Referred Law 19

Last night at about 10:30 pm SD Secretary of State Shantel Krebs sent out the following tweet:

This is great news! I first noted the referral for SB 69 (SoDakLiberty Posts) back in April. Here is part of what I said at that time, and stick with:

This is the bill that kept going downhill as it went through the legislative process.  That is too bad. I originally supported the idea of the bill because it would have been a fair start at election petition reform in South Dakota. I do believe the current petition system in South Dakota needs to be reevaluated and in particular the petition challenge process needs to be changed in ways that would protect the integrity of the election process. Sadly this bill as passed into law no longer does anything but play partisan politics with the rights of South Dakota citizens to challenge the party in power.

All I would add to what I wrote before is that even though I supported the idea of the original bill (before its multitude of amendments), I still feel even the original form of the bill had some constitutional issues in regards to ballot access. Sadly the legislature didn’t fix those constitutional issues and instead focused on adding provisions to SB 69 that would make it harder for Independent candidates.

It is also worth noting that the Libertarian Party of SD and the Constitution Party of SD filed a lawsuit via the ACLU challenging the early deadline for newly formed political parties set forth in SB 69. I’ve heard a few politicos in SD already mention that SB 69 being referred will kill the lawsuit. I don’t believe one will impact the other. Here is what ballot access guru Richard Winger has to say about the subject:

It seems somewhat likely that the state will now try to persuade the judge to put a freeze on the lawsuit until after the November 8, 2016 election. However, there is at least one precedent from Ohio that says challenged ballot access restrictions are ripe for a court decision, whether that law has been subject to an upcoming referendum or not.

Personally I am happy to see various groups within the state are working from different angles to protect the voting rights of all South Dakota citizens. It gives me hope that a more open and truly representative election system is possible in South Dakota.

PS. Of course now that SB 69 was successfully referred it leaves a mess with SB 67. The legislature will have to fix that right away in 2016! Since I am running out of blogging time today, I will refer everyone to Dakota Free Press for more info.

A look at the Vision presented on Martin O’Malley’s campaign website

Martin O'Malley. Image source Maryland State Archives.
Martin O’Malley. Image source: Maryland State Archives.

It is time to continue looking at the Presidential candidate official campaign websites for the 2016 Presidential election. Today I will look at another Democrat who has entered the Primary, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley’s campaign website is much better to gather info from than many of the other candidates. On his website there are sections highlighting his bio, record, and vision. For the purpose of this post I will look at O’Malley’s vision to see what he would do and stand for as President. As always I will provide commentary on how O’Malley’s stances align with my libertarian leaning viewpoints.

Fight for better wages

Here is part of what O’Malley says about wages:

That means raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, increasing the threshold for overtime pay to $1,000 a week, and restoring workers’ collective bargaining power.

I’ve heard many Democrats use the $15 an hour minimum wage as a talking point. Hopefully it never goes further than that. Minimum wage laws are counter-productive, and actually make the poor become poorer by reducing the purchasing power of every hard-earned dollar.

When talking about restoring workers collective bargaining power I am somewhat confused. O’Malley didn’t expand upon this. The ability of workers to voluntarily join a Union and engage in collective bargaining is an important right of all Americans that is under no threat. I believe O’Malley is talking about right to work states (such as SD) which do not allow Unions to force workers to pay dues to them whether they want to or not. If Unions are truly working for the workers they will get the dues from each worker voluntarily.

Bring Accountability to Wall Street

Here is a small excerpt from O’Malley’s vision:

Despite the 2008 meltdown on Wall Street, just five banks still control half of the industry’s $15 trillion in assets, and not a single executive was ever convicted of a crime.

We need stronger protections for American families, not billion-dollar banks.

I agree with O’Malley to an extent. The large banks have gotten out of control. But it was not just greedy bank executives that caused the meltdown. The “protections” O’Malley speaks about are not generally what people think they are. These protections are laws and regulations that allow the big players to keep out competition. And worse in the case of banking, the protections forced the taxpayers to bail out these large corporations. All that was learned by these unscrupulous big bankers is that the taxpayers can be counted on to bail them out of any bad decisions made by the banking industry.

Expand Equality of Opportunity for the Next Generation

A small excerpt:

and college debt-free for all.

Education is a cornerstone of democracy and should be a priority. Yet O’Malley loses me at providing free college for everyone. The current college system in the US has many problems. First, it appears that everyone is trying to push every member of the next generation to college. That just simply isn’t the best route for everyone. Some people do well in college, but some would be better off going to a tech school, learning on-the-job, or some may be better trying to start out self-employed. The focus purely upon college seems to narrow of thinking.

Further, college is not free! Someone has to pay for it. Instead of expanding the federal governments role in higher education it may be better get the federal government out of funding colleges and universities. It is no coincidence that the cost of college tuition has risen proportionately to the subsidies provided by the federal government. As long as the taxpayers continue to subsidize the higher education system, those colleges and universities will continue to increase tuition. Sadly it is the people going through college that are being hurt the most by the federal government backing higher education loans at such high rates.

Strengthen Our Cities and Communities

A small excerpt:

It has been decades since we embraced a real agenda for American cities and communities.

I won’t really comment on this. As a libertarian I see no valid reason for the President to create an agenda for American cities and communities.

Support Women and Families

Another excerpt:

We have an economy where too many Americans must choose between pursuing their careers and caring for their children.

I don’t understand why having to choose is such a bad thing? Using myself as an example, I spent just over twenty years in the technology field as a network engineer and project manager. Yet now I am a stay-at-home dad while my wife brings home most of the money. Just five years ago it was the opposite, where my wife stayed at home. Does that mean one or both of us were wrong for choosing to care for our children? Somehow the Democrat party has tried to make it look like a bad thing that many women (and men) choose to put their careers on hold to stay home with children.

Break Down Barriers that Keep Families in Poverty

Excerpt:

We should set a bold goal of cutting poverty in half within 10 years

Oh goodie, a double-down on the War on Poverty. Anytime the US declares war on something it has turned out to be a travesty, and the War on Poverty is no difference. Here is a handy little chart showing how successful the war on poverty has been:

Poverty rate to welfare spending.
Poverty rate to welfare spending.

The War on Poverty was first started in 1964 by LBJ. At the time the poverty rate had been on a great downward spiral. Yet after that the rate seemed to be more related to how much is spent on poverty. Perhaps many of these well-meaning social welfare programs are in fact artificially keeping the poverty rate high.

Reform Our Immigration System

Excerpt:

Bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows will grow our economy, expand our tax base, create jobs and lift wages–benefiting our country as a whole.

I completely agree with O’Malley on this excerpt! I really wish my conservative friends would stop insisting on building a wall and instead focus on fixing the immigration system. Then, and only then, if they still feel a wall is necessary it can be built.

Protect the Dignity of Retirement

Excerpt:

Rather than reducing Social Security benefits or privatizing them, we must expand benefits so all of our seniors can retire with dignity.

That is a talking point I think many would agree with. But the big question is who will pay for it? The other question is: why can’t people plan for their own retirement needs? In order to support this talking point from O’Malley it would mean believing that the majority of Americans are unable to plan for their own future. It would also mean more money would have to be taken from current generations to pay for older generations.

Launch a Jobs Agenda for the Climate Challenge

Excerpt:

Clean, renewable sources of energy represent one of the biggest economic opportunities in a century.

Climate change has become too politicized of an issue to truly discuss anymore. All I will say on this talking point is that the energy industry will thrive off the taxpayers backs, whether it be with renewable energies or fossil fuels. As President it would appear O’Malley would be no different from any other politician bought out by the energy industry lobbyists.

Restore Competition to Our Economy

Excerpt:

We must also say “no” to bad trade deals that would further benefit the largest corporations, while costing American workers their jobs.

At first I didn’t like what O’Malley was saying, because it was very much against open markets. But the excerpt above does at least lead me to believe O’Malley is against TPP. I wish he had come out say that so I could know for sure. But just like a politician he purposely left it vague….

Put Elections Back in the Hands of American Voters

Excerpt:

We should start by embracing citizen-funded elections, to reduce the outsized influence of special interests and the very wealthy in our politics. Small donors should have their contributions matched by six-to-one or more, and be rewarded through a refundable tax credit that encourages more people to give and participate.

Here O’Malley completely loses me. What he is advocating is that taxpayers subsidize the two-party political system in the US. Yes, there is a lot of big money in political campaigns. But is it wise to give direct control of taxpayer money to the politicians that will use that money to run for office? I really can’t believe so many people support such a system.

Insist on Transparent, Accountable, High-Performing Government

Excerpt:

We must have a clearer view of the most important things our government is trying to accomplish and why. This requires clear goals that reflect what we actually value as a nation. But above all, it means our government must precisely measure its progress, and present that information in an accessible, transparent way to the public.

To end this post I will just say this vision goes the opposite of what I feel the vision of a President should be. Instead of trying to accomplish something, I want a federal government that is purely focused on protecting liberties and protecting the US. Social engineering is not what I want to see from a Presidential candidate!

Conclusion:

It is not surprise that overall as a libertarian I am no fan of O’Malley. There are a couple of areas I agree with him on. But overall he is too progressive and I believe would continue the US down the centrally planned path of economic devastation.

GOAC meeting today at 9am

Today, Monday June 29, there will be a meeting of the Government Operations and Audit Committee (GOAC) at 9:00 am in Pierre. I haven’t had time to actually research what is on the Agenda. Hopefully I’ll have time to review what was done in today’s meeting later in the week.

The documents for this meeting can be found on the LRC website. Here is are the items listed on the agenda:

9:00 am

Call the meeting to order and approve the minutes from the May 19, 2015 meeting
Minutes 5-19-15 Meeting Doc.1

Item 1 – Department of Revenue
Letter to Revenue Doc.2
Revenue Findings 2014 Doc.3

To discuss their corrective action plans for audit findings included in the Single Audit Report for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014

To discuss critical policies and procedures during times of transition (e.g. Division of Motor Vehicles, Business Tax)

Item 2 – Department of Social Services
Letter to Social Services Doc.4

Measuring the impact of additional funding to the Division of Behavioral Health

How cases involving forensic evaluations flow through the Judicial System

12:00  Lunch

1:15 pm

Item 3 – Bureau of Human Resources to discuss procedures for identifying and processing conflicts in the area of State contracts
Letter to BHR Doc.5

Item 4 – South Dakota Associated School Board Health Insurance Program
Letter to SDASB Doc.6

Item 5 – Legislative Research Council will review total costs associated with Legislative memberships and dues
Letter to LRC Doc.7

Item 6 – Committee discussion of future topics and the next meeting date

Adjourn

Some interesting news about military voting costs in the SD Boards of Elections minutes

election-panda-cleanI was just browsing the draft minutes (pdf) for the SD State Board of Elections (BOE) meeting held on June 15, 2015. Since the BOE put its name on SB69 I decided to keep this board on my radar. I didn’t notice anything about ballot access or anything to do with SB 69. Most of the meeting seemed to revolve around HAVA funds (the Help America Vote Act of 2002). While that is a topic worthy of blog space, it is not what caught my eye.

Here is a section of the minutes that peaked my immediate interest:

Kea Warne mentioned that the UOCAVA program was put together in 2010 and has been used since. iOASIS, which was created and funded by the $668,831 FVAP grant ran into a bug with security clearances for military personnel trying to use their Common Access Card (CAC) and the iOASIS program. In 2014, only 24 voters were able to use iOASIS which amounted to the per voter expense being very high. All military and overseas citizens can use UOCAVA but just military personnel can use iOASIS. iOASIS does allow military individuals to also register to vote electronically but the UOCAVA system does not include that option. In the future, the Secretary of State’s office will review the cost of this as the $50,000 maintenance fee will need to be paid for as the FVAP grant funds will run out.

Linda Lea Viken asked if we will continue to use UOCAVA and iOASIS. Kea Warne stated yes through the 2016 General Election but after that we will review the costs of the maintenance fee for iOASIS and determine if the expense is justified.

No further comments or questions

Before looking at what is a red flag above it might be helpful to go through some of the terms used.

  • UOCAVA refers to the system first put into place in South Dakota by then Secretary of State (SOS) Chris Nelson for use in the 2010 election. It was named after the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act, which was signed into law by President Reagan in 1986. According to the SOS website  “The UOCAVA system allows all military and overseas voters to submit their absentee ballot application electronically and receive their absentee ballot electronically.”
  • iOASIS was a system implemented by former SOS Jason Gant and stands for Innovative Overseas Absentee-Balloting System.  According to the SOS website the iOASIS system “turned a 24 hour process into a 5-minute transaction. “
  • FVAP stands for the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

That clears up some of the terminology. Now to look at a comparison of the two military voting systems used in South Dakota (from info on the SOS website):

  • Both the UOCAVA and the iOASIS systems require the voter to print out an absentee ballot and mail it to the county auditor.
  • The iOASIS system can only be used by active duty military personnel; while the UOCAVA system can be used by all overseas voters, including military personnel.
  • The UOCAVA system can take up to 24 hours to process, while the iOASIS system can take up to five minutes to process.
  • UOCAVA was created utilizing a $100,000 HAVA grant; iOASIS was created utilizing a $668,831 FVAP grant. The iOASIS system also requires a $50,000 maintenance fee each year.

All of the above bullet points were created using information found on the Secretary of State website.

I find it mind-boggling that SOS Gant spent over half a million dollars to implement a system that doesn’t appear to give a great amount of value over the system that cost under $100,000. I remember at the time thinking this sounded like a great new system for military voting, but I don’t recall it being mentioned that it basically did what the current system already did.

Additionally it was reported in the BOE minutes above that due to bug in the iOASIS system that only 24 active duty military personnel were able to utilize that system during the 2014 election. Given the price of $668,831, I would agree with the statement from those minutes that stated “the per voter expense being very high”. In fact as a taxpayer I wonder if the $668,831 in HAVA funds couldn’t have been better spent in other ways. And I also wonder if South Dakota should continue to use such a single-purpose system that will cost an additional $50,000 in maintenance, when there is a system the state already owns that does basically the same thing without the ongoing maintenance costs.

This is a topic that definitely deserves more attention. Hopefully SOS Shantel Krebs will look closely at this system and determine whether it would be prudent to consider iOASIS a sunk cost that is better left in the past. It is almost too bad, the implementation of iOASIS is one of the few things I gave SOS Gant credit for; and now it appears that credit may have been premature.

Eric Leggett will step up as an Independent in District 15 again

Independent District 15 state House candidate Eric Leggett at the SDLP Convention. Photo by Ken Santema
Independent District 15 state House candidate Eric Leggett at the SDLP Convention. Photo by Ken Santema

A couple of week ago Eric Leggett of Sioux Falls reached out to let it be known he was running as an Independent for District 15 House in 2016. I was happy about his entry into this race for two reasons. First, without Mr Leggett it would possibly leave another seat with no opposition in the general election. Secondly I happen to like Leggett as a candidate and feel he would be a good legislator.

Leggett ran as an Independent in the 2014 election against two incumbent Democrats. No Republicans ran in the race. Had it not been for Leggett the race would have been handed to incumbent Democrats Patrick Kirschman (D, Dist 15) and Karen Soli (D, Dist 15). Kirschman is term-limited, so he will be unable to run again in 2016.

Here are the official Secretary of State results from the District 15 House race in 2014:

District 15 results in 2014 general election. Chart from SD SOS website.
District 15 results in 2014 general election. Chart from SD SOS website.

Ignoring the fact that results have Leggett’s last name and party incorrect, the results show that Leggett was close to overtaking Kirschman. Leggett was only 153 votes short of winning the House seat. During that campaign I know Leggett worked hard and expect him to do so again in 2016. I think that is great! There is a definite possibility of an Independent candidate picking up a seat in 2016!

As for my second reason for being pleased Leggett is in this race. I have met with Leggett a number of times over the last year and feel he would make an excellent legislator. The first time I met him in person was when he attended the SDLP convention last summer in Sioux Falls. Legget was a keynote speaker at the event and at that time I found him to be a true independent thinker.

During the 2015 legislative session I had a number of chances to speak further with Leggett in Pierre. He worked for the legislators, I believe as a Legislative Assistant (I might have that title wrong). Every conversation I had with Leggett proved to me that he understands the issues and understands how individuals are impacted by various pieces of legislation. Actually he seemed to have a better grasp of legislation than many actual legislators I spoke with. He would be a welcome addition to the SD House of Representatives.

Seeing entries such as Leggett into the 2016 election gives me hope that non-partisan legislators can get elected into Pierre and serve the people of SD, instead of a political party. Hopefully later this summer I will have a chance to meet with Mr Leggett in Sioux Falls and get further information about his run for District 15 House in 2016.

Some thoughts after attending the WTN educator session of the Blue Ribbon Task Force

Sen Deb Soholt speaking on the Senate floor. Soholt is co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force. Photo by Ken Santema 02/11/15.
Sen Deb Soholt speaking on the Senate floor. Soholt is co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force. Photo by Ken Santema 02/11/15.

Today I attended the educator public meeting in Watertown as part of the SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education. Yesterday I posted that I was skeptical of the public meetings, mostly because it appears the meetings may be using the Delphi Technique to skew results towards a wanted result. After attending this meeting and more contemplation/research I’ve slightly changed my thoughts on the Blue Ribbon Task Force public meetings.

Before going into that I want to mention that the business stakeholder session in Watertown was cancelled because no business owners showed up. I was quite disappointing with that. As a business owner I can understand that finding time for such meetings can be difficult. But it was troubling to me that not a single business owner in Watertown could be bothered to attend. The Task Force actually did quite a bit to inform the community of the meeting. I also ended up skipping the general public session because I didn’t see any point in hanging out in Watertown for two and half hours waiting to see if anyone would show up.

OK, back to the educator session. As has been reported previously, the session use a Delphi technique to run the meeting. I only attended the one session, but from what I could tell Delphi techniques were properly utilized to run the meeting. The facilitator did NOT try to lead the group towards certain conclusions. I’ve seen that done many times by corporations when I would do contract work as a Project Manager. I’ve seen Delphi methodologies utilized many times, and in my assessment the meeting in Watertown was run properly.

There have also been reports that certain talking points were off-limits during the meeting. That is somewhat correct. During her opening remarks the task force co-chair Sen Deb Soholt (R, Dist 14) mentioned these meetings were only to deal with funding. To that she added talk about standards, curriculum, teacher quality, and other topics would be considered off-topic. To sum it up Soholt said “if it has to do with money, its fine to talk about”. That statement did leave some opening for talking about other issues, if it was done in the framework of money. I didn’t actually see that really happen much though. And when small groups did go off-topic I didn’t see any facilitators swoop in and shut down the conversation. Actually the facilitators and task force members in attendance seemed to just sit back and listen.

Even though I think the Delphi technique was used correctly I still have issues with aspects of the meeting. First and foremost is the focus of these public meetings. During the meeting there are three broad questions that are asked that follow the same overarching question that is provided to each participant:

What possibilities are there to meaningfully fund education for our kids and our communities.

The very purpose of these meetings is talk about funding. Based upon that topic everything I seen about how the meeting was facilitated was run correctly. How the meeting was conducted is less important than why the meeting was conducted.

Here is part of what Governor Daugaard said when establishing this task force:

We need to understand where teacher shortages are occurring and what can be done to address them. We need to ask why 12 states can spend less per student than South Dakota, yet pay their teachers more. We need to ask why, even as we hear growing concerns about teacher salaries, many schools’ reserve funds are increasing. These questions need to be answered with hard data, not anecdotes or opinion surveys.

South Dakotans want a quality education for every student, and we want great teachers to provide that education. Through this process, we can gain confidence that our state funding system is focused on achieving these important goals.

Part of the Governor’s stated purpose of the task force is to look at how 12 states spend less per student and yet have higher teacher pay. Many of us believe the Governors statement should be taken to mean that not only new funding sources should be looked at, but also look at how current funding is used to foster a quality education. Yet the stated goal of these public meetings is to look purely at funding, and not necessarily on what is driving the costs behind education.

There just seems to be a disconnect when the Task Force is saying on the one hand that SD needs to discover how other states are able to do more with less money; but at the same time the public meetings will only look at how to increase funding. It is almost like hearing “our school districts in SD are wasting our money” while simultaneously hearing from the same source “we need to raise more taxes to fund our school districts”. Having such a large disconnect is just asking for trouble.

Personally I wish the topic, or what they call ‘overarching question’, of the public meetings would actually be something like the following:

What possibilities are there to ensure education funding is using the proper balance of cost effectiveness and quality. And what possibilities are there to enhance education funding for areas that are found lacking.

Such a topic is a lot more broad to be sure; and would likely require longer public input meetings. It would also potentially cause other issues because local control has to be balanced. But at the same time a lot of local control is already lost because of federal and state mandates on how certain funds are used.

Yet a topic like I propose would allow the public to at least provide their input on education costs. Right now it feels to many like the meetings are nothing more than providing input on what type of tax increase is most palatable. During the introduction of the meeting it was mentioned that the panel has been speaking to other stakeholders about costs and they are in fact looking at them. So why not let the public also provide feedback?

To wrap this post up. Yes, a Delphi methodology was used to conduct this meeting. The Watertown meeting was conducted in what I would consider to be a fair way based upon the topic. For me the real problem with these public meetings isn’t how the meetings are conducted, but that they are focused too narrowly on raising education funding while ignoring the costs. In the end I think it is still safe to say the Blue Ribbon Task Force will be used to create a series of revenue enhancements similar to those seen for infrastructure funding this year. It should make for an interesting legislative session in 2016.

Tomorrow I plan to attend the Aberdeen meetings (hopefully there will be all three sessions). After that I hope to post about the actual content of the meetings. I think I’ve said more than enough about how the meetings are being conducted…

I’m going to the Blue Ribbon Task Force meetings this week, but I’m very skeptical of smoke and mirrors

SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education logo.
SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education logo.

This week the SD Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education will have public meetings in Watertown and Aberdeen. The task force was created this legislative session by the Governor. According to the  Blue Ribbon Task Force website it was created for this purpose:

South Dakotans have three goals in education. We all want:

  1. A quality system of schools focused on student achievement;
  2. A workforce of great teachers; and
  3. An efficient, equitable funding system that supports those goals.

That is why I have joined with legislative leaders to create a Blue Ribbon Task-Force on Teachers and Students. This task-force will reevaluate the current funding formula, collect and analyze data, engage with stakeholders, and seek public input. The task-force will then make recommendations to the 2016 State Legislature for reform.

As Sen Brock Greenfield  (R, Dist 2) noted recently in Aberdeen, this focus purely on funding was not how the task force was originally sold. Sen Greenfield and Rep Elizabeth May (R, Dist 27) have been critical of the Blue Ribbon Task force, and I believe rightfully so. It is almost mind-boggling that a Republican controlled Task Force would focus purely upon raising revenue (raising taxes) without looking at the costs and ensuring any new revenues are not simply being thrown to fix a problem without looking to see if there are any cost root issues. I find it troubling that the leadership in charge of the task force have asked other legislators not be involved with the task force meetings. Shouldn’t this be a time where legislators are interacting with constituents and working together?

It is actually easy to explain why legislators such as Greenfield and May are being asked to refrain from speaking at such events (all legislators were asked to be quiet, but I have no doubt the policy was created because of outspoken legislators like them). The meetings use the Delphi Technique to run the public meetings, and contrary opinions are not wanted at these meetings.

Investopedia has a good explanation of what the Delphi Method is:

The Delphi Method seeks to aggregate opinions from a diverse set of experts, and can be done without having to bring everyone together for a physical meeting. Because the responses of the participants are anonymous, individual panelists don’t have to worry about repercussions for their opinions. Consensus can be reached over time as opinions are swayed.

But, the panel is not truly using the Delphi Method, they are using a skewed version of it called the Delphi Technique. The best definition I’ve found of the Delphi Technique comes from a paper by Chia-Chien Hsu and Brian A. Sandford:

The Delphi technique is a widely used and accepted method for gathering data from respondents within their domain of expertise. The technique is designed as a group communication process which aims to achieve a convergence of opinion on a specific real-world issue.

On its face that seems like a great way to run a public meeting. It would appear to make sure that every part of the group would be taken into account in order to solve issues. That is exactly what the Blue Ribbon Task Force is supposedly trying to do. Yet the in the paper by HSU and Sanford there are downsides to the Delphi Technique:

The iteration characteristics of the Delphi technique can potentially enable investigators to mold opinions (Altschuld, 2003). An experiment, conducted by Scheibe, Skutsch, and Schofer (1975), indicated that Delphi subjects would rate their responses differently after receiving a distorted feedback. Dalkey and Helmer (1963) also noted that, “some ‘leading’ by the experimenters inevitably resulted from the selection of the information supplied” (p. 467). Moreover, Cyphert and Gant (1971) illustrated that a statement in their study was initially rated below average. However, Delphi subjects rated the statement above average after receiving false feedback. Therefore, Cyphert and Gant (1971) concluded that the Delphi technique could, “be used to mold opinion as well as to collect [data]” (p. 273). Indeed, “subtle pressure to conform with group ratings” was one of the major drawbacks in the Delphi technique (Witkin & Altschuld, 1995, p. 188). Delphi investigators need to be cognizant, exercise caution, and implement the proper safeguards in dealing with this issue

I bolded the key parts of the problems with the Delphi Technique above. And from personal experience I can say that the Delphi Technique can (and often is) used by many large organizations to actually change the culture and opinions of a target audience. When used in a less than moral fashion the Delphi Technique is nothing but a smoke-and-mirror show that fools participants into believing their voices are actually heard.

Recently a My Voice article in the Argus Leader written by Florence K. Thompson highlighted some problems with using the Delphi Technique (the whole think is worth reading):

Smiley-faced, flattering, “facilitators” control the proceedings, herding participants into ever-changing small groups, which must come up with a consensus solution to severely limited questions, on a sticky-note. (It’s sort of the socialist version of a Tupperware party.) These sticky-notes then become “data” which is supposedly tabulated by other facilitators and which will be later, lauded by politicians. Groups are stacked with “friendlies” who come up with ideas to support the hidden agenda. This process produces “buy-in” or “ownership” from trusting participants, who are tricked into believing that they had real input, leading them to agree wholeheartedly with the group’s rigged consensus.

Any contrary opinions are not reported. People who raise objections to the limitations on free debate are blocked from participating. Those who persist, feel the pressures of social ostracism for not cooperating and not being “nice people.” “Some people are talking about things they’re not supposed to,” warned the facilitator over the microphone at the Rapid City meeting of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education Funding. An unauthorized sticky-note with a divergent opinion was immediately snatched off the display board by an angry facilitator.

Normally in Delphi Technique situations they have haven’t been so blatant about keeping dissenting opinions out. But other than that, everything reported by Thompson matches up with how I’ve seen other organizations misuse the Delphi Technique.

This week there are Blue Ribbon Task Force meetings scheduled in Watertown and Aberdeen. I hope to attend the meetings in both locations and see for myself if the meetings appear to be nothing but a smoke-and-mirror illusion being used to push for a large sales tax increase in 2016.

District 2 State Senator Brock Greenfield speaking in Aberdeen

District 2 State Senator Brock Greenfield speaking in Aberdeen, SD. Photo by Ken Santema 06/11/15.
District 2 State Senator Brock Greenfield speaking in Aberdeen, SD. Photo by Ken Santema 06/11/15.

On Thursday, June 11, District 2 State Senator Brock Greenfield was the guest speaker for the Brown County Republicans Reagan Lunch. During the 2014 election Greenfield decided to switch from the House to defeat Democrat State Senator Chuck Welke. Greenfield is an interesting one to watch in Pierre because he actually seems to back up his conservative talking points in how he speaks on the floor and how he votes. In this meeting Greenfield spoke on a number of topics. But the two topics he spent the most time speaking about was the transgender policy of the SDHSAA and the Blue Ribbon Task Force. In this post I will focus on just those two big topics.

Greenfield began by talking about the transgender policy with the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA). There were a number of failed bills during the 2015 legislative session to reverse that policy (HB 1161HB 1195SB 140).

Greenfield noted he has been attacked on Facebook recently because of his opinions about transgender issues. He said this has also been coming up quite often in the newspapers recently. Going back he said the policy has been pushed by the WPATH agenda. He said this new policy was not about helping a boy in some small town that thinks he is a girl. Rather he said the policy was all about WPATH trying to get their agenda pushed in the State of South Dakota. Since the WPATH agenda was making no headway in the legislature, he said the group then focused on the SDHSAA.

Greenfield believes the ultimate push of the policy is for the co-mingling of genders within bathrooms and locker rooms. He believes those that believe in traditional values have problems with such a policy. When talking about the policy, he noted that if a teenager believes he/she is a different gender than what he/she was born with; and that if parents and teachers disagree, then the adults involved are in the wrong and must seek counseling. Greenfield believes the supporters of the new transgender policy are “defending the indefensible”. He notes it is the fringe on the left that are helping to push the WPATH agenda.

Going forward he is OK with the fringe left attacking him, because he does not think it is OK for boys and girls to share the same bathrooms. As a personal example Greenfield mentioned he is a baseball coach, and has actively recruited a female player for his team. But that female player “does not think she is a boy”. This player is treated equal to all other players, but she does not share bathrooms with the rest of the team. He noted that even in school inter-scholastic sports there have been times where girls have played what is considered to be boys sports. But even then the girl was not treated like a boy and placed into the boys locker room.

I’ll step back here for a moment and editorialize. I agree with Greenfield on this area. For the most part I really haven’t cared one way or the other about the transgender policy. But, after hearing Greenfield speak I do wonder why there needs to be a transgender policy. There are already policies and procedures in place that allow students to play sports generally only available to the other sex. And I do think many parents of daughters will have issues with a boy who thinks he is a girl sharing a locker room with their daughters. The more I look into this issue, the more I have to agree with Greenfield that the transgender policy adopted by the SDHSAA was nothing more than the WPATH agenda being pushed upon South Dakota. Again, as a libertarian I really don’t care if people are transgender, but as a citizen of South Dakota I do have concerns about a special interest group (WPATH in this case) trying to push their agenda on the taxpayers of South Dakota. And even if I don’t agree with all of the concerns from the conservative side, I do feel there is enough there to be concerned about and now feel it was right for the legislature to tackle the issue during the 2015 session.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education is the other main topic Greenfield spoke about. A couple of weeks ago Greenfield posted on Facebook a criticism of the Task Force, and has received quite a bit of attention thanks to that post. Greenfield says the Task Force was created during session and was supposed to look at areas of education and come back with proposals for the 2016 session for funding and other periphial issues. A couple of weeks ago legislators received emails that told those legislators that they are encouraged to attend the meetings, but they will not be allowed to speak. Greenfield also noted the scope of what was being discussed had also changed. Therefore, he notes that even though there are federal and state mandates creating more cost for schools, those will not be allowed to be brought up as a topic because costs are not part of the scope. Between telling legislators they cannot speak and keeping the scope of the conversation away from costs it prompted Greenfield to be critical of the Task Force. Afterwards he received calls from certain powers that were unhappy with his criticism of the Task Force.

Greenfield still believes the Task Force is important. He urges everyone to go and let themselves be heard. Especially since legislators are being silenced, he believes it is even more important for conservative voices to be heard at the meetings. Greenfield did note that if the Task Force does come up with some good solutions he will back them. But at this time he feels the Task Force is possibly being used to push for a new sales tax increase for part of the year that will be used to throw more money at education. Before giving more money to education Greenfield would like to know why we are last in teacher pay, but not last in per student allocation.

Overall I would say Greenfield did a good job of bringing forth the conservative concerns with the SDHSAA transgender policy and the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education. I wish more politicians from both parties would actually get out there and speak about such topics. Whether I agree or disagree with Greenfield on certain topics, I can respect the fact I know where Greenfield stands and that he will always be willing to discuss the topics in public.

PS. Greenfield actually spoke more on both topics in the QA session, but my audio from that portion is no good. I won’t post without audio to back up what I’ve heard.