Capitol Notebook: After 32 years serving public, Vern Larson gets two more

By Bob Mercer

State Capitol Bureau

When Vern Larson was forced from statewide office, for a second time, by term limits, he needed something to do.

That’s why the longest-serving constitutional officeholder in the history of South Dakota spent the past few summers working at the I-90 rest stop near his hometown of Vivian.

He greeted tourists and helped with travel plans. He grew a soul patch, too, to commune with the motorcycle riders – “bikers” – rumbling through.

Such was retirement.

There are solid reasons for term limits. And, it’s what a majority of South Dakota voters wanted in 1992.

Constitutional officers can’t serve more than two consecutive four-year terms in the same office. Legislators can’t serve more than four consecutive two-year terms in the same chamber.

Then there is Vern Larson, who is an example of what’s wrong about term limits.

Vern liked going to work daily at the state Capitol. Forced from office, he stayed his first winter in Arizona and didn’t enjoy it. He turned 64 last Oct. 25 and went back for a second winter.

This time, he liked it. But he missed winter and legislative session at the Capitol .

When he ran for statewide office in 1978, as the Republican candidate for auditor, he grew a moustache to make him look more mature than his 30 years. He won, kept the moustache and kept winning.

Altogether Vern won election for auditor six consecutive times. The fifth came in the 1994 election, two years after voters adopted term limits. In his sixth run, in 1998, Democrats didn’t run a candidate against him.

That reportedly was the first time a constitutional officer went unchallenged on the South Dakota ballot.

Term-limited in 2002, Vern decided to try something new. He ran for state treasurer and won. He was re-elected in 2006, without an opponent again.

Last week, Vern Larson came back to the Capitol – this time, to a third constitutional office.

Earlier this year, Jarrod Johnson gave his resignation as state commissioner of school and public lands. That led to two phone calls to Vern.

The first came from Dusty Johnson, the governor’s chief of staff, inquiring about Vern’s interest and availability. The second came from Gov. Dennis Daugaard, offering the appointment effective Aug. 15 when Jarrod left.

Vern happily accepted. He doesn’t plan to run for election in 2014. Instead he’ll serve until after a new commissioner is chosen by voters next November.

He said the office was left in “excellent” condition.

Vern took the oath of office Thursday morning in the state Supreme Court chamber from Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who called him “an old friend.”

Among the various Cabinet and elected officials in the room was a fellow in the back: Rob Swanson, one of the first people the then-new auditor hired back in 1979.

Vern Larson publicly thanked the governor, mentioned Rob and said his office door is open. “I’m looking forward to the opportunities and the challenges,” he said.

Fifteen minutes earlier, he chatted with some reporters.

“It’s good to be back,” he said.

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