Thune sees firsthand the frustration of Americans By Randy Dockendorf
Yankton Media, Inc. VERMILLION — U.S. Sen. John Thune saw firsthand Monday the anxiety found on the minds of many citizens. The South Dakota Republican toured the Masaba mining manufacturing plant in Vermillion, led by owner Jerad Higman. Afterwards, Thune met with a roomful of Masaba's nearly 90 employees in the company break room. One man expressed the frustration felt by many Americans toward elected officials, particularly at the federal level. "Does anybody listen to what we say?" he asked. "Politicians tend to go ahead and do their own thing." Another man pointed to the proposed Hyperion oil refinery in neighboring Union County. The $10 billion refinery, the nation's first in more than three decades, would refine 400,000 barrels a day. "This end of the state is 90 percent against (the refinery), but they keep right on going," the man said. Thune said the refinery and permitting process is a state, not federal, matter. "It's not something we decide as a federal delegation," he said. Union County voters did approve a zoning change for the refinery, Thune said. Local residents will need to balance the benefits, such as jobs, with concerns on the other side of the ledger, he said. "People will have to weigh in and decide if this is something they want to support," he said. In addition to winning public support, Hyperion will need to get all the necessary state permits and to meet requirements, Thune said. "This is mainly a county and state decision," he said. Another Masaba employee criticized the use of federal transportation dollars. "We need better highways, and we have money going toward bike trails," he said. Thune responded that federal money exists for both types of projects. "We need to make a priority of our roads and bridges. Safety in our transportation should be our highest priority," he said. "But there are opportunities in the highway bill for other projects." The money for both highway maintenance and hiking-biking trails comes out of the federal gas tax, Thune said. The real problem comes from congressional earmarks, which are projects tabbed for separate dollars, he said. "They meet in a small room, and they say, 'Let's get dollars to this and that,'" he said. "It has nothing to do with taxpayers' interests." One Masaba employee, an Iowan, criticized what he sees as activist judges, particularly in the recent decision allowing gay marriage in his home state. Another employee called for greater use of more materials in alternative energy, such as cellulosic ethanol. Thune outlined an effort, sidelined in Congress, to allow more use of discarded wood in national forests. "Let's use (the wood) for a good constructive purpose or, worse yet, allow it to burn in the forest," the senator said, referring to fire hazards. Other comments focused on fuel efficiency standards for cars. Thune spoke of the need to get automakers to build more flex-fuel cars that can use a wider variety of ethanol blends. Discussion also focused on the financial straits now felt by the big automakers. At some point, financially troubled auto manufacturers may need to go to bankruptcy court and restructure their debts, Thune said. On another subject, Thune said a cap-and-trade proposal amounts to a national tax on energy. "We have private incentives and alternatives rather than have this imposed from on high," he said. Thune told the Masaba employees that federal spending has soared in recent months with the stimulus package and the bailouts of financial and auto companies. "We have maxed out our credit card," he said. "It's a horrible bill to pass on to our children and grandchildren." The federal government has continued taxing and spending more than it can afford, Thune said. "We have to start learning to live within our means," he said. "We can't start all kinds of spending programs." In the end, the federal government has to stop its current rate of spending, Thune said. "Washington, D.C., has to be willing to stand up and not create debt for future generations," he said. Afterwards, Higman said he was happy to have Thune visit his plant, which has seen expansion and now covers 160,000 square feet. "I'm excited, not just when we have dignitaries, but any time I get to show off our facilities," Higman said. "Today showed that John (Thune) is in touch with what is going on in South Dakota." Higman said he was interested to hear the wide variety of his employees' questions and comments. However, he said he found a similar experience when he was campaigning last fall as a Republican candidate for a District 17 Senate seat. Washington, D.C., lawmakers are out of touch with the needs of small business, Higman said. And those small businesses are creating most of the jobs, including southeast South Dakota, he added. "It's frustrating. Washington has never run a business," he said. "They don't know the intricacies of creating jobs." Unlike many manufacturers hit hard by the recession, Higman said his business has remained relatively strong. "We are busy, and I am cautiously optimistic," he said. Higman has his own definition of a federal stimulus program. "The federal government just has to get out of our way, and let us do what we do best — create jobs, growth and a vision," he said.