Between the Lines — A tear in the fabric of our state

David Lias

David Lias

I’ll admit I simply shrugged several months ago when I first read an article entitled, “Here’s why remote state capitals are often more corrupt,” written by Brad Plumer.

His work appeared in the May 16, 2013 online edition of the Washington Post.

Plumer noted that two recent economic working papers offered up a theory that geography may help determine the level of corruption that may exist in a state’s capital city.

The first paper, written by Filipe R. Campante of Harvard Kennedy School and Quoc-Anh Do of Singapore Management University looks at state capitals in the United States and finds that “isolated capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption.”

Plumer wrote that the two co-authors measure a state’s shadiness by looking at the number of federal convictions for public corruption between 1976 and 2002. As it turns out, this correlates reasonably well with a state capital’s geographic remoteness from major population centers.

I filed that away mentally, trying to recall how many federal corruption cases over the years have had their roots in our state’s capital city. Nothing came to mind, but Plumer couldn’t help himself. He interjected this statement after revealing the remoteness-corruption link: “We’re looking at you, Springfield, Illinois and Pierre, South Dakota.”

How can isolated state capitals tend to have a higher likelihood of corruption? Turns out one factor can be, of all things, a profession I hold near and dear – the media.

The authors found that state capitals located in remote areas tend to receive less newspaper and media coverage. What’s more, voter knowledge about the goings-on in these isolated statehouses tends to be lower. And, as a result, voter turnout for state elections tends to be depressed.

According to the history books, Pierre was chosen as South Dakota’s capital because it is located just about smack dab in the geographic center of the state. Over a century ago, South Dakotans evidently figured that the entire populace should suffer, to some degree, equally. No matter what far-flung corner of the state you may call home, the chances are a trip to Pierre when the Legislature is in session will be a long one.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. There even seemed to be bit of historical support in placing the capital far away from the greedy special interests that may have taken root at the time in such major metropolitan areas as Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Aberdeen.

At the nation’s founding, James Madison argued that capital cities should be located “in that spot which will be least removed from every part of the empire.” That way, Madison asserted, government would be insulated from powerful economic interests. But perhaps Madison erred. Or maybe his prescription is just wrong for our times.

Today, our state finds itself embroiled in corruption of some sort. Things are just coming to light; the investigation is in its early stages.

All we know for certain, thanks to announcements made by Gov. Dennis Daugaard from his isolated office in Pierre, is that the official inquiries involve the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). Other well-placed sources also have said federal authorities are investigating the finances of an idled beef plant in Aberdeen and a federal immigration program that supplied much of its funding.

Also, an individual who was highly involved in the state economic development efforts, including the financing of the beef plant and other ag ventures, was found dead of a gunshot wound near Lakes Andes three weeks ago. Authorities have yet to publicly elaborate on the circumstances of his death.

Concerning the various findings of their study, Campante and Do write, “From a policy perspective, in particular, one is led to conclude that extra vigilance might be needed, when it comes to polities with isolated capital cities, in order to counteract their tendency towards reduced accountability.”

This is about the time one would expect one to say it is time for South Dakota voters to hold their elected officials accountable, but as grand of a notion as that may be, it’s much easier said than done.

Last April, the Argus Leader, in an exhaustive report, talked with many members of our current state Legislature about conflicts of interest. Many state lawmakers clearly find themselves in such conflicts constantly, yet most of them say it’s not a problem. (Notice that’s what they say.) That’s easy for them to say; currently, there are no rules that prohibit any lawmaker from voting on legislation that pose a clear conflict of the public’s interest.

One could also make the argument that the corruption our state is currently experiencing is happening outside the realm of our Legislature. We won’t know this until the investigations are complete, but it appears that any alleged wrongdoing may have occurred more at the executive level, specifically involving the GOED and officials appointed or hired by a prior governor.

Perhaps accountability needs to first be aimed at the governor’s office, and officials linked to that office. We hope, if the investigation clearly finds deficiencies in that regard in our executive branch, that our governor deals with them swiftly and effectively.

All we can do right now is speculate, but this we know for certain: corruption tears at the very fabric of this state, in ways that can be unexpected. People like Campante and Do, who study this kind of thing, note that the evidence is clear – indicators of corruption are negatively correlated with important economic outcomes. Corruption reduces economic growth, via reduced private investment; corruption limits development, as measured by per capita income, child mortality, and literacy; and corruption affects the making of economic policy.

You don’t need us to tell you that corruption is bad. What’s not so obvious is how what’s being investigated currently has likely already had a negative affect on the state economy, on our health, on the quality of our education, and our quality of life.

The damage won’t quickly be undone. Hopefully, ways will be found to help make sure something like this doesn’t happen again in our fair state.

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