Representative Kyle Schoenfish (R-19/Scotland) posted a Legislative update of sorts in the Yankton Press & Dakotan this week. As writing, it stinks, but hey, at least he tried; up here in District 3, while Rep. Drew Dennert gave at-the-Capitol Facebook updates from the special session, none of my three legislators have put any essays in the paper for months, at least not that I can recall.
But if a legislator is going to communicate in writing, he should try to write well. Rep. Schoenfish fails to demonstrate the basic composition skills I would expect of a high school graduate. Let’s start with his introduction, paragraph #1:
I was invited to speak at the Memorial Day Service in Canistota this year. We have the freedoms we have today because of the sacrifices our veterans have made. Memorial Day is the day we honor those who gave their lives fighting for our country. Last year my dad, Randy Schoenfish, gave the Memorial Day address in Menno. He served 21 years in the National Guard until he retired as a Lt. Colonel. The seven core values of the National Guard are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. I see my dad exemplify those core values when he’s interacting with his friends and family, serving his clients and the taxpayers as a certified public accountant and serving in church and the community [Rep. Kyle Schoenfish, “Core Values; A Special Session,” Yankton Press & Dakotan, 2017.06.19].
I use the term paragraph lightly. A paragraph is a collection of sentences flowing in logical sequence to develop one topic. One of its sentences—the topic sentence—will explicitly state that topic, thus serving as the one-line summary of the paragraph’s intent. These seven sentences neither flow nor develop any unified topic. Schoenfish says he spoke in Canistota on Memorial Day, then doesn’t tell us what he said or what happened there. He interrupts his thinking about Memorial Day to issue a standard formula about freedom, sacrifice, and veterans. He returns to Memorial Day to describe its general purpose, to honor those who died fighting for America, then bounces to talk about his dad, who didn’t die fighting for America. Schoenfish switches topics to talk about the National Guard and its values. Then the National Guard disappears, and Schoenfish just tells us what great values his dad exemplifies at the office and around town. No one sentence on the page summarizes what this block of words is trying to do. Instead, Schoenfish rambles through three ideas—my dad and I make speeches; soldiers sacrifice for America; my dad’s a great guy—none of which is sufficiently developed to qualify this introduction as a paragraph.
I also use the term introduction lightly. An introduction is not just the first words out of one’s mouth. An introduction introduces the thesis of the essay. It tells readers the main idea that the writer is going to develop with the following paragraphs. A review of the subsequent paragraphs indicates there is no main idea.
I attended the retirement party for the superintendent of Freeman High School, Don Hotchkiss. The importance of quality, dedicated administrators like Hotchkiss in our schools cannot be overstated. It’s vital to have communication between school officials and legislators and Hotchkiss is a passionate advocate for our schools [Schoenfish, 2017.06.19].
Memorial Day, military service, Dad’s values—poof! All gone! And—spoiler alert—they aren’t coming back. Now Schoenfish praises Don Hotchkiss and (O, blind irony!) the importance of communication. “Passionate advocate” is a nice note, but “cannot be overstated” is a cliché. We can overstate the importance of school administrators: Without quality, dedicated administrators, our kids will all become criminals! Cliché indicates Schoenfish is thinking about details to develop his point; he’s just recycling fancy-sounding phrases he’s absorbed from other speakers and writers to fill space. For a retirement party, Rep. Schoenfish could have brought at least a couple sentences with specific details about Hotchkiss’s service.
But we mustn’t linger on any one topic too long. On to Rep. Schoenfish’s actual job as Representative:
A special session was called to address the issue of non-meandered waters. A study committee came up with a compromise that opens up the lakes that were closed due to a Supreme Court decision while also giving landowners rights that they did not have before the court ruling. This issue has been ongoing for years. The bill was HB1001; I voted yes, it passed 52 to 16. It was amended in the Senate to sunset in 2018; when it came back to the House; I voted yes again; it passed 54 to 12. Due to the sunset clause, it will likely be dealt with again in the 2018 session. The bill was an emergency, so it required 47 votes to pass [Schoenfish, 2017.06.19].
Here I give Schoenfish credit: this paragraph hangs together, focusing on the Legislature’s response to the complicated issue of access to new lakes that have flooded private land. However, nonmeandered waters and the new law are so complicated that Schoenfish should have dedicated several paragraphs—let’s say the entire column—to this topic. What lakes were opened—any in District 19? (Answer: yes! Island South in McCook County!) What new rights do landowners have? (Answer: closing access to unlisted nonmeandered lakes with signs and buoys, petitioning for closure of listed nonmeandered lakes like Island South.) Why has the issue been ongoing for years? Why was the bill an “emergency”? (Hmm… how was it an emergency if it was going on for years?) Why was the new law passed for only one year, and what if anything does Rep. Schoenfish want to do to make the law better in the 2018 Session?
With all those substantive questions to address, Schoenfish’s dedication of half of his paragraph to vote counts seems misplaced. The paragraph hangs together as an account of the special session, but it doesn’t say enough about how the new law resulting from the special session affects constituents.
But enough about constituents—let’s jump to a completely different topic!
I have been appointed to the workforce housing summer study by the legislative executive board. My experience as a CPA working on muncipal audits and housing/rental components of income taxes will be beneficial on the committee. Businesses across the state are looking to expand and hire more workers, but the workers need places to live. This is an issue in rural and urban areas all across the state. I have been reaching out to community leaders for their input on workforce housing issues. The committee had our first meeting the day after the special session. We heard from various stakeholders who spoke and took questions during the meeting. Speakers consisted of several mayors, representatives of housing associations and government agencies and others. Topics discussed were affordability, taxes, tax credits, dilapidated houses, lending and more. There are many components that make up our housing and rental system and the committee will continue to work on this major issue that South Dakota faces. The committee will meet again later this summer [Schoenfish, 2017.06.19].
Again, Schoenfish gets credit for keeping each sentence in this block focused on one topic… albeit a topic with no connection to anything mentioned above. Alas, as with nonmeandered waters, Schoenfish leaves the problem of workforce housing underdeveloped by crowding brief details about the problem and legislative procedure into one paragraph instead of dedicating a full essay to the issue. Imagine the above paragraph expanded into a few detailed paragraphs:
- The Problem: Workers have trouble finding housing, so we’re having trouble finding workers. Give us some examples, and tell us why: Are wages too low? Are houses too expensive? Are we short on building contractors?
- The Legislature’s Response: We’re conducting a summer study. Who’s on it? When and where are we meeting? This is the paragraph where Schoenfish could tuck in his mention of his involvement and qualifications… plus maybe an explanation of how municipal audits and income tax affect the availability of housing.
- What We’ve Heard So Far: We learned a lot about the problem at our June 13 meeting. Give specific examples of who said what.
- What I Think So Far: Given what we’ve learned (see how that flows?), we should look at the following policy actions. Give the public a preview of what you’re thinking and invite their feedback.
That multi-paragraph explanation would make a great essay all by itself. Do the same with the Special Session, Don Hotchkiss, and Memorial Day, and holy cow, Kyle! You’ve got material for a month! Your name and smiling face appear next to useful, informative prose every week in the paper. (Plus, you can further delay answering those darned questions Scott Ehrisman, Angela Kennecke, and your neighbor Senator Stace Nelson keep asking about you and GEAR UP.)
Instead, constituents get one slapdash, one-darn-thing-after-another pile of sentences that toss out at least four unrelated topics that don’t tell the voters as much as they deserve.