I contacted Rob Timm because I was intrigued by something called the Chiesman Center for Democracy. Allene Chiesman, a South Dakota philanthropist, founded and endowed the non-partisan non-profit in the 1960’s in order to help people be more informed and therefore, more involved. Rob and I met in his office across the street from the County Courthouse to discuss the organization and how if can impact tomorrow.
“Forty percent of the elections in South Dakota never occur: there are no competitors. Last year in Sioux Falls, voter turnout for the School Board election was 3.7%. The Knight Foundation recently issued a report, ‘Why Millenniums Don’t Vote for Mayor.’ People vote for President, but they don’t vote for mayor. Why is that? For most people, local elections don’t feel relevant. Yet in fact, they are more relevant, from a tax perspective, than state and national elections. Local governments cover roads, police, and schools: big budget items. Yet our tendency is to focus on state and national elections, where each voter’s influence is actually diminished.
“South Dakota is a no income tax state. We have relatively high property taxes and sales taxes. Income tax is a huge swear word. Now, I am not advocating for an income tax; I want to live another day. But right now school funding is a problem. I live in Hill City, where property values are high and school funding is adequate. The State provides aid to districts that do not raise a minimum funding level of $5,000 per pupil, and small districts can get an additional 20% premium. Open enrollment is available to every student, yet optional by district. This creates discrepancies between mandated levels of support and income streams. Just a few days ago the Kansas Supreme Court found their school funding allocation unconstitutional. We haven’t had that case here in South Dakota – yet.
“Our role is to make information about our electoral process available and easy to understand. How does a person run for office? The logistics of that is buried in forms. We want to get cities to put that information on their websites, up front. We advocate for a better, simpler process. We envision a partnership between media and other entities to make the process more open.
“Sometimes our electoral intentions do not work as planned. In South Dakota we have term limits on all statewide elected offices. But you can alternate between offices. The result is that we have more new faces, which was intended. The unintended consequence is that term limits enhance the power of the governor. Just when an elected official is building steam, he or she is termed out. And term limits do not address the reality that most elected officials are retired or economically stable, so they don’t represent the breath of interests in the state.
“In South Dakota we have a supermajority of Republicans in both houses. We miss the healthy give and take that comes when two parties are better matched. The third parties are gaining more traction, as people want more choices than they see from the two major parties.
“In small communities people are hesitant to run against their neighbors. They may not know where they stand on issues, but they are inclined to accept people from their community. In Rapid City we have the opposite problem. This area is growing fast. Everyone is from somewhere else. How do we build a sense of community? We are working here on a Character Community program – six pillars of character that can help build consensus and community.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“We have to live for today. If we can make today as good as possible, we’ll have the best possible tomorrow. From a Biblical perspective, we know today is here; we cannot know about tomorrow. We have to plan, sustain, and manage growth or you’ll find yourself in a world of hurt.”