We can break down the top stories of 2016 many different ways. I like to crowdsource the analysis.
First, let’s look at viewership stats. Out of 1,539 blog posts published in 2016 (take that number as your starting point for calculating whether you’re getting your money’s worth from Dakota Free Press), 127 received more than 1,000 views. Here are the ten 2016 stories you looked at most often on Dakota Free Press. (Parenthetical numbers after each linked title represent views at each post’s unique URLs; these numbers do not include how often folks read each story while browsing the DFP home page.)
10. March 16: Jackley Files Charges Against Guericke, Hubers, Phelps; Says Westerhuises Stole Maybe Over $1M (2,900 views). The GEAR-UP/Mid-central scandal in Platte erupted in September 2015 when Mid-Central Educational Cooperative business manager Scott Westerhuis apparently shot his wife and four children, set his expensive house on fire, and shot himself. Attorney General Jackley determined that Scott and his wife Nicole had been been embezzling money from the GEAR UP education grant through the Platte coop for years. Jackley arrested Mid-Central director Dan Guericke, Mid-Central assistant business manager Stephanie Hubers, and Westerhuis crony Stacy Phelps and charged them with a mix of theft, conspiracy, and falsification of evidence. All three trials are pending.
9. April 9: AAU Wrestling Tournament Workers Accused of Racist Comments
(2,929 views). Two volunteers working at the annual youth wrestling tournament were caught on video making racist remarks about two American Indian wrestlers. As punishment, the offending volunteers participated in a cultural awareness session by telephone. I recommended at the time that in the era of phone-cams and social media, racist jerks would find it in their self-interest to keep their racist jerkery to themselves. Donald Trump proceeded to prove me wrong.
8. February 18: 46–23: Governor’s Sales Tax Hike for Teacher Pay Falls One Vote Short in House (3,216 views). Governor Daugaard’s signature initiative of 2016 was his effort to raise South Dakota’s teacher pay from last in the nation to something like $48,500. In this first full floor vote, the Governor failed to round up the two-thirds vote necessary to pass the teacher pay funding mechanism, a half-penny sales tax increase. Rep. Lee Schoenbeck (R-5/Watertown), a supporter of the measure, immediately moved to reconsider and bring the measure back for another vote after the weekend.
7. January 18: SD GEAR UP 2005 App Lists Director Who Didn’t Direct, Evaluator Who Didn’t Evaluate… (3,335 views). KELO’s Angela Kennecke posted this 2005 document to tie GEAR UP’s origins in South Dakota to Governor Mike Rounds and former Department of Education staffer Wade Pogany. Asked by Kennecke about his role as GEAR UP overseer, Pogany said he held no such role. The 2005 application also showed the state budgeting $989K each year for consultants and contracts and only $65K each year for scholarships for Indian kids.
6. February 16: “Dakota” Means “Ally”—Good Senate Speeches from Losing Fight Against HB 1008 (3,387 views). Seven Republican Senators joined their eight Democratic colleagues to vote against the Rep. Fred Deutsch’s (R-5/Watertown) bill prohibiting schools from allowing transgender students to use the school restrooms and lockers rooms of their choice. The bill still passed 20–15. I excerpted some of the more conscientious speeches from four Democrats (three of whom are not returning to the 2017 Session) and Republican Craig Tieszen. The Governor ultimately vetoed HB 1108, but it may return as a 2017 bill or a 2018 ballot initiative.
5. March 18: Melmer E-Mail Indicates Intent to Come Through Platte Night of Westerhuis Crime (3,698 views). Evidence released by the Attorney General’s office related to the GEAR UP arrests included an e-mail exchange involving Scott Westerhuis, Dan Guericke, and Education Secretary turned well-paid GEAR UP consultant (remember #7?) Rick Melmer. Three days before Westerhuis killed his family and himself, these three men were discussing the ongoing state audit of Mid-Central’s GEAR UP activities and a lack of proper documentation. Melmer wrote, “I’ll be traveling through Wednesday night but in SF on Thursday and Friday if we need to visit any further.” I interpreted that line to mean “traveling through Platte.” Others read “through” temporally, not geographically. Speculation and debate raged in the comment section, but the line turned out to be as false a lead as the infamous white pickup truck.
4. January 23: Noem Torpedoed Own IHS Rhetoric with $220M in Sequester Cuts (4,400 views). Rep. Kristi Noem regularly squawked over bad news about Indian Health Service with demands that something be done. The South Dakota Democratic Party noted that Rep. Noem had already done something to IHS, cutting through sequestration the funds IHS could have used to provide better care. As usual, Democrats’ reasonable policy observations did not translate into victory at the polls in November. IHS still needs help, and Rep. Noem has already moved on to her 2018 campaign for Governor.
3. January 11: Open Letter to Governor Daugaard: Just Raise Teacher Pay (5,516 views). The day before Governor Daugaard offered his teacher pay plan, I urged the Governor to keep it simple: “Raise the average teacher salary to $60,000. Fund K-12 so every district in the state can outbid every surrounding state for teachers. Raise the $184 million necessary through any combination of tax increases, ending tax breaks, and cutting other programs you can think of. But invest in teachers big, and invest in teachers now.” Governor Daugaard only aimed for $48,500, a target that raises us from last in the nation but leaves us last in the region.
2. February 10: Republicans Stall Governor’s Teacher Pay Plan Until Tuesday (11,148 views). Education advocates were reading the blog as intently as they were watching the Legislature. When the sales tax for teacher pay came to the full House, educators and administrators took time off work and drove across the state to Pierre to pack the gallery and let legislators know the whole school world was watching. Nervous Republicans stalled the vote, sending educators home dismayed and disgusted. Two days later, the sales tax bill failed by one vote, but the next week, on reconsideration, supporters netted one more vote to send the bill to the Senate and to the Governor. Based on my survey of salary data, the Governor’s plan appears to have fallen about $1,900 short of the $48,500 target average salary, leaving us 47th in the nation for teacher pay. The Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal will leave us behind that target.
1. February 14: HB 1107 Brings “Sharia for Jesus” to South Dakota: Time to Boycott Backers? (13,722 views). Republicans in the South Dakota Legislature joined culture warriors in other states in offering a bill disguising bigotry as “religious freedom.” HB 1107 would have allowed business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ South Dakotans, unmarried parents, and anyone else who disagreed with their sexual ethics. When the House approved this pro-discrimination bill, I suggested, “If these 46 Representatives and their Senate colleagues can’t be convinced that discrimination has no place in state law, perhaps decent South Dakotans should declare that they have no place in those legislators’ businesses.” An eager reader helped me compile a list of businesses that employ Republican legislators who employed supporters of HB 1107. A few businesses listed contacted me to express their displeasure. Eleven days later, prime sponsor Rep. Rev. Scott Craig (R-33/Rapid City) asked Senate Judiciary to kill his bill, and Senate Judiciary obliged.
Fascinatingly, Rep. Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) raised this Sharia-for-Jeses blog post as an issue in his race against me this fall for the District 3 Senate seat. He made quick and unclear reference to it in a September 24 candidate forum as the lowest point of his Legislative career. He raised it again in our radio debate on KSDN on November 4 and flatly lied to the listening audience about the discriminatory intent of the bill. Evidently lying works: Novstrup is heading for the Senate, and he has a conscienceless President who may get a parallel pro-discrimination bill from Congress.
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GEAR UP and teacher pay dominate the ten most-viewed posts. Fascinatingly, not one of these most-viewed posts or their main topics appears among the ten most-commented posts of 2016:
The hottest conversation starters in 2016 were guns (three posts), energy (three posts), the fate of South Dakota Democrats (two posts), and Donald Trump (two posts). Notice also that the top comment-catchers have more national content than the top eye-catchers. I hypothesize it’s easier for more readers to talk about national politics because the media provide more reference material. We heard more about Trump and the Orlando shooting via more channels than we hear about bills in the South Dakota Legislature, so it’s easier to jump into a conversation and give your two cents. The greater views for South Dakota-specific stories may signal that many more readers come to Dakota Free Press to get their two cents on South Dakota issues. If that’s the case, I’m happy to be providing you with your two cents… sometimes maybe even a nickel!
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Wait a minute—where are the ballot measures? I provided more reporting and analysis on all ten ballot measures than any other writer in South Dakota (I welcome an independent comparison of article- and word-counts with Mercer, Strubinger, Ellis, and Nord), yet I find 2016 blog posts on teacher pay, GEAR UP, transgender issues and the culture war, and the Deep Borehole Field Test dominating views among the top 127 blog posts.
But as I noticed on Election Day, my Projects pages on the ballot measures drew lots of attention from voters.
|Amendment R: Oversight of Vo-Techs
|Initiated Measure 23: “Fair Share” Union Dues
|Referred Law 19: Incumbent Protection Plan
|Amendment S: Crime Victims Bill of Rights
|Amendment U: Fake 18% Rate Cap
|Initiated Measure 21: 36% Rate Cap on Payday Loans
|Amendment V: Open Nonpartisan Primary
|Amendment T: End Gerrymandering
|Initiated Measure 22: Full Text
|Initiated Measure 22: Anti-Corruption Act
|Referred Law 20: Youth Minimum Wage
Much to my surprise, the ballot measure that interested readers most was the one I thought would be least impactful, Amendment R, the minor constitutional clean-up needed to make current vo-tech governance technically legal. Amendment R alone drew a few more readers than my main Ballot Measures index page, a link to which I provided on every one of the 15,000 campaign cards I distributed around Aberdeen and the state in 2016. Views of my explanation of Amendment R exceeded the margin by which R passed on November 8. (Governor Daugaard, I’m still waiting for that lunch you owe me.)
The second-most-read ballot measure was the shortest, Initiated Measure 23, the fair-share union dues proposal that did not mention “fair-share union dues.” Adding views of my explanation page and the full-text page (the only HTML/plain-text version of the Anti-Corruption Act that I’ve seen on the Internet) makes voter-approved, legislator-loathed, and judge-junked Initiated Measure 22 the third-most-read ballot measure of the year among Dakota Free Press’s Projects pages.
Thank you, readers, for providing all the views and comments that make this evaluation of South Dakota’s big stories possible. I welcome your observations about the stories you loved, hated, and found most important in 2016. I also look forward to the big stories 2017 will throw at us. (Stay tuned—I’ll have my wish list for 2017 coming up!)