Governor Rounds

Years at SDSU helped shape Rounds’ career

Editor’s note: Mike Rounds ’77 is the first SDSU grad to serve as governor of South Dakota. In the final days of his administration, STATE Magazine sent University Relations writer Dana Hess ’76 to interview the governor about his accomplishments. That’s only fitting because the two men have some history.

In the summer of 1989, Hess was hired as the editor of Rounds’ hometown newspaper, the Capital Journal. During Hess’ tenure at the newspaper in Pierre, Rounds was elected to the state Senate, became his party’s majority leader, and was elected twice to the governor’s office. (Hess claims Rounds’ re-election had nothing to do with him leaving Pierre in 2006.)
Here’s a portion of their conversation:

Q: When you were the state Senate majority leader, you worked closely with Governor Bill Janklow, so you knew what the job was like before you were elected.
Given your experience in state government, were there any surprises along the way?
A: With the country at war, the amount of time that we have dedicated to military and veterans’ activities was more than what I had expected that it would be. If you’re in the Legislature, it appears to be ceremonial in nature to be considered the commander in chief of the South Dakota National Guard. But in the last eight years, it’s been a lot more than ceremonial.

Some of the times when I felt the greatest amount of pride were times when I’ve been involved with the Guard. I will tell you that some of the most difficult times have been as the commander in chief involved in the deployments and the funerals. Some of the times of the greatest joy have been at the welcome home ceremonies. A lot of emotion is involved.

Q: When you look back over eight years, is there anything you would you have done differently?
A: I’m sure there are. I probably would have tried to engage more legislative leaders earlier than just during session in terms of what they were looking at for opportunities during legislative sessions.
But for the most part I don’t think there’s a lot of decisions that I would make differently.

Q: When I was at the paper we always put out a prelegislative session special edition. We would interview local legislators and party leaders. You were both. We knew from experience that any reporter sent to interview you was going to be out of touch for at least three hours because you love to talk about public policy more than just about anybody else in this town. So I wonder, after eight years as governor, what’s your perception of the press?
A: There are legitimate, professional reporters. They are involved in newspapers, they are involved in radio and they are on TV. There are legitimate editors. Then there are those who simply have not been, in my opinion, professional, but they are few and far between.

The vast majority of the reporters are professional. They write good and fair stories. But sometimes they’ll get a bad name from someone who comes in and already has their mind made up about the story. They’ve already got a slant on it. All they want is an opportunity to give credibility to their slant, regardless of the facts.

I feel the same way about editors. There are editors who I’ve disagreed with but it’s OK to disagree as long as there’s an opportunity to present your side of the story. There are some editors who really didn’t care and their whole program was a point of view and any information you could provide them was simply used to promote their point of view in a slanted way. But the vast majority are professional in nature.

Q: As someone who was raised in Pierre and has an acute understanding of what state government means to this community, how tough was it for you to preside over state budgets that didn’t include a pay raise?
A: It’s been very difficult. It’s been frustrating just in that we’ve always lived within our budgets. The problem is that sometimes the revenues don’t come in as you forecast eighteen months earlier. That’s been the case for this national recession that we’ve been suffering through. So you do your best to manage with the resources that you’ve got.

That’s part of the responsibilities of the governor and staff to manage all the resources in order to try to maintain a semblance of an appropriate budget based on what the Legislature has approved. So in some cases you may not have general funds coming through. You may not have revenues coming through.

But if you can tap or access federal funds as a replacement you try to do so in order to maintain stability within the operations and programs of government, whether it be state aid to education or for providers of Medicaid services, whether it be maintaining correctional facilities, or whether it’s just building or maintaining highways.

For us in the Pierre area, it’s been hard on state employees but we’ve done our best to try to maintain the services that are expected. It’s not easy, coming from this community, to see state employees go two or three years without a pay raise. It hurts everybody.

The alternative was to significantly reduce services and eliminate positions that are responsible for the services. They go hand-in-hand. And we chose to try to continue to provide the services, which meant continued employment opportunity for employees.

If you really are intending to reduce the amount that state government spends, you’ve got to look at where the money goes. Education gets 49 cents out of every dollar. Medicaid and social service activities, taking care of people that have no place else to go, takes 35 cents out of every dollar. Eleven cents out of every dollar goes into court systems and the correctional systems.

That leaves you five cents for everything else. That’s eight departments, four bureaus, the governor’s office, the Legislature, all the constitutional offices.

So to put it in perspective, if you’re going to cut bureaucracy 10 percent, you’re going to cut somewhere around $8 million in a $1.1 billion budget. But if you cut state aid 10 percent, you’ve cut close to $30 million.

There’s a real challenge out there when you start talking about significant shortfalls in budgets. It means you have to look at lots of different areas that provide valuable services to people. In most cases, government isn’t bloated. It isn’t like everybody’s been letting government grow.

Q: I’ve been on campus for two years, interviewing a variety of professors about their research and I’ve been struck by the number of times they mention economic development and the number of times it goes back to an initiative that came out of your administration. So I’m wondering how an insurance salesman from Pierre turns into an advocate for university research.
A: In the 1990s when I was majority leader, we had a number of students that came to us as representatives of the Student Federation and they told us their dissatisfaction with very large classroom sizes and instructors that in some cases were teaching them using English, but it was English as a second language. They were frustrated with the quality of the classroom educational experience.

The legislative leadership made it a point to work with the Board of Regents and with Governor Janklow to make classroom education at the regental level a priority.  And in doing so we refocused away from individuals who were doing research and who may not have been good classroom teachers.

We said time out. Until we get our classroom educational experience corrected and until we get students saying they’re getting qualified teachers in the classroom, we’re going to slow down this research activity.

When I became governor, and as I started meeting with students, they were, for the most part, satisfied with the teaching that was going on in the classroom. But we noticed that a number of them were also leaving our state at that point to go out and finish with graduate work somewhere else because we didn’t have the graduate programs.

If you want graduate programs you have to bring in individuals who are Ph.D. or stronger and the best way to bring them in is with a lure of research opportunities, particularly when there were government grants being made available to researchers that we weren’t getting an opportunity to access because we weren’t doing the research.

So it looked to us like here was an opportunity to focus on specific areas of research that would bring qualified members to our staff who would then also be able to bring people to graduate positions. That keeps them in South Dakota. And in keeping them in South Dakota long enough, they can grow their roots here. That’s a formative time in a person’s life just through college. That’s when people find their spouses; that’s when they start to establish their own families. That’s when they start to have their roots.

It appeared to us that if we wanted to meet the major challenge that we’d identified as keeping young people in South Dakota we had to give them a chance to do their research in our state. And since that meant the federal government paying more money in, it looked to us like we’d tap resources that we’d otherwise never get.

That was really the logic behind it. To grow our research capabilities, keep these people here, and with it have a spinoff for economic development. That’s started happening. There are five commercialization centers that we’ve tried to establish and maintain. But we also found that by creating the new Ph.D. programs—I think we’ve got twenty-three new Ph.D. programs—by doing that we kept more people in our state. And the cost was borne by the students and by the federal government and not by state government, with few exceptions.

There are two things that I’m disappointed that I did not get done. We need a Ph.D. in physics with the national laboratory possibilities out here. We don’t have that yet. We just haven’t been able to afford to do it. The other thing is our medical school at the University of South Dakota should grow somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent because we are turning away bright young people. The vast majority of those bright young people would stay in South Dakota with our expanding health-care facilities. It’s expensive to do, but it’s something that would really, long term, add to the economic development efforts of our state.

Q: No interview with you is complete without a question about your future. I remember your wife talking about the summer of the primary. She said you moped around the house until you decided to get in that race because you really wanted this job. Is there another elected office that holds that much appeal?
A: When I said I wanted to work as governor, this was the job that I really wanted to do. I’ve loved it. I’m going to finish this one strong, right to the end. I have no intention of using it as a steppingstone to something else. It doesn’t mean that I may not consider elected office or public office in the future because I may. But today my next step is to go back into the private world, get back into the insurance industry again.

George Washington was right when he did public service. He stepped away and went back into private life. I really think that’s what our Founding Fathers expected of leaders. They wanted leaders who could afford to do public service and would step in and give it everything. And then they wanted them to step out and to go back into private life to allow other people to step in and to do their turn at public service. I want to do that. If there’s an opportunity in the future, I’m not going to say never.

Q: Is there any advice that you’ve given your successor?
A: Be himself. Dennis Daugard is one of the finest gentlemen you’d ever want to meet. He’s smart. He’s articulate. I asked him to be my lieutenant governor because if anything happened to me, I wanted him to be the next governor of this state. I thought he would do a good job then and he’s done nothing in the last eight years to make me think otherwise.

Every governor is different. They have their own styles, and they should craft their team to meet their own styles. That’s good, and it’s healthy. That’s our encouragement to him. Do it the way you want it done.

Q: Would you like any of your kids to go into politics?
A: I’d be very proud of them if they’d ever consider it. They’ve seen the good and the tough side of it. There are benefits and a really good feeling about public service. There are also times when it’s tough on families because it’s a lot of time away from home and because you’re in the public eye. And anytime anybody’s in the public eye you catch criticism and you catch some degree of praise. You have to keep that in perspective. You have to make decisions. You’re going to have some people happy and some people unhappy. And that’s hard on families because they don’t appreciate the criticism.

If they do decide to go in, I’d give them my full support but I want them to do it for the right reasons.

Q: Is there a lesson from your time at SDSU that helped you in your career?
A: One thing that young people really have to participate in is to get away from home. To meet people their own age. To visit with and learn about people that have different points of view. That’s healthy. I think South Dakota State gave me that opportunity to meet a whole lot of different people that had different points of view than I did.

And at the same time, I really benefited from the courses I took from guys like Bob Burns. And I loved the history that I learned from John Miller. I had a minor in economics. I remember Rocky Gilbert’s economics classes that I still use today. There was a philosophy instructor at that time by the name of David Nelson. He had an excellent series of philosophy classes that were very, very good. One of the books that we studied was Black Elk Speaks, which I have reread several times since. It’s a story about Native American life and meeting the white man and the damages that were done to their civilization. If it wouldn’t have been for David Nelson’s philosophy classes, I wouldn’t have been introduced to that book.

South Dakota State was good to me. It gave me a chance because it had internship opportunities. I interned in the Legislature my junior year and that really had a bearing on my interest in public service.

I had a chance to participate in student government politics. I was on what they called the Inter Residence Hall Council. We actually put together the first beer on campus policies. We rewrote the codes in terms of dorm life. Back when I started my freshman year, women were treated differently than men and they had different guidelines for being in the dorms. They locked their doors at a particular time. If the girls weren’t in on time, they were locked out. It didn’t take long for guys to figure that out.

We put together rules that updated what I thought were archaic rules about dorm life that needed to be changed. That gave me a chance to look at policy and whether policy was good policy or whether it had unintended consequences. I had a chance to see what it takes to change those policies. I really enjoyed that and it kept my interest.

Q: With six public universities—two big ones, four smaller ones—do you foresee the state’s ability to keep that many schools going?
A: Yes, I do. Right now we’re at record capacity. We’re at record attendance. We’ll maintain that as long as the demand is there for higher education and as long as students are prepared to pay a higher cost of tuition. When you’re in a difficult budget situation, and the state doesn’t have the money to put into higher education, if you’re committed to maintaining a quality experience, the result is that tuition will go up. Because you have to pay the bills somehow.

I think the Board of Regents have done a very good job of promoting higher education, and I think the evidence is revealed in the facts, and the facts are that we have record attendance at our universities at a time when our high school enrollment has actually gone down. We’re getting a higher percentage of individuals to come here. We’re getting a higher percentage of them, I believe, to stay in for graduate studies and that leads to possibilities of them staying here longer.

Q: So what are the last days of an administration like? What are you working on?
A: Transitions are difficult. We want it to run as seamlessly as possible but you’re talking about personnel issues because you have new people who are coming in and a lot of my staff will be going to other locations, either back into the private sector or back into other parts of state government. At the same time you’re trying to pick up all the loose ends you possibly can.

And the day-to-day work continues on. You’ve still got to respond to questions from the public. You’re finishing work on corrections issues. There are commutations that traditionally occur this time of the year.

You’re working on the budget. I’m trying to put together a base budget so the next governor can come in and modify the base budget with his team working together with legislative leaders so they buy into the final product. It’s not a product that I should do. It’s a product that they need to have their fingerprints on.

Dana Hess

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