Mirror exclusive: Sen. Rounds answers questions about meth, hemp and more

Senator Mike Rounds, back in his home state of South Dakota, visited Augustana’s campus on Friday, Nov. 22. The junior senator, who is close to finishing his first term in office, sat down with The Augustana Mirror to discuss everything from family life to national politics.

I wanted to ask you about your term as senator which will be up in 2021. Do you plan on running for reelection?

With everything that was going on with [my wife] Jean, we just thought let’s get that behind us first and we’d already agreed we would be making the formal announcement. But we just thought let’s get that settled and so forth so we can focus on campaigning when it comes time to campaign.

When I first ran for the Senate, I actually announced two years in advance and that’s just a long time to be in campaign mode. We kind of thought this time [it is] probably more appropriate and probably most people would appreciate it if we didn’t try to do active campaign until we really needed to and so we really won’t start campaigning until real close to the first of the year and so forth but we are getting very close to making a formal announcement.

Since you do plan on making that announcement, can you give me your 15 to 30-second elevator pitch for why, especially young adults and people in college, should vote for you?

Part of the message we like to share with young people is number one, we are going to do everything we can to keep you and your family safe.

Second of all, we want you to meet your full potential which means to get a good education but also to be able to afford to pay for that education and finally job opportunities that afford you the chance to get ahead. Right now unemployment is probably the lowest it’s been since 1960. We’ve got more and more people coming into the job market today. The tax changes that we made just a couple of years ago are affecting young people as much as anybody because we put a $2,000 tax credit for every single child. That’s $2,000 off your taxes, And that’s for each of those children. Well, that’s a huge amount of money when it starts going towards child care, and it’s coming right off of your tax bill, that’s dollars back in your pocket. I don’t think a lot of people have caught on to how big that is, in terms of a break for money that they can spend, rather than what the government’s gonna spend.

The other piece that that did is it opened up for business to expand and grow. So, in doing that, job opportunities are there like they’ve never been before. And what that also [did is] wages are increasing now for the first time in years. Those wage increases are there today, and they’re going to continue to go along with a growing economy. I just spent three days right in a row with the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jay Powell. We sat and talked and he talked about how optimistic he was about the future for these young people coming up in that the job opportunities are going to do nothing but grow, as long as we can get them a good education. Technical education in some cases but a chance to get in and get a good education.

It’s one of the reasons why a couple of us have gotten together and we’ve tried to expand some of the federal guidelines so that we can do tax credits for employers who would offer, as an incentive, to pay for college costs for young people. We do that at the federal level right now. So if somebody comes in and works for me, I can take part of my office expense and actually help pay off student debt. What we’d like to do is expand that to the rest of the country to where individual businesses can offer as an incentive to pick up part of that student debt. Today, it’s available but only if you’re looking at new education. We want to expand it back to kids that are getting out of school, college, that want to get that paid for.

So those are the types of things that we’re going to be focusing on, talking about and hopefully, that rings a bell with young people.

You mentioned your wife earlier and I know she just recently went through surgery to remove a tumor. How is she doing and how has it been having to split your time between D.C. and South Dakota?

You know, in South Dakota it’s family first and people understand that. Jean went through six rounds of chemo, and we did it at Mayo [Clinic]. She had a tumor, it’s a sarcoma, it’s a very rare type of cancer but it’s very aggressive and the chemo that they gave her took this tumor that was right here on her hip, it was as big as my fist, and when they took it out a week ago, it was the size of my thumbnail. And the vast majority of what they took out was dead because the chemo had done its job and the doctor said this is just phenomenal. They were very very pleased and the surgery went very well. They didn’t do any nerve damage near the sciatic nerve or anything and so we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

When they first got the results after four chemo sessions and they looked at the PET scan that was done, there was a group of doctors in the room and when they were looking at it, two of the doctors high fived. And the doctor, the surgeon, who was in charge of the team – there were like 13 members on the team – he turned to us, he looked and he said: “You have to understand, some of us will go through our entire professional career and never see these types of successful results.” But the [nurse] that was there smiled and she said, “Yep, very nice, but we know we’re the tool, and somebody else is in charge.” So for us, we attribute a lot of the success to a lot of prayers from people across the entire country.

There are some really good people [in D.C.] that serve this country and they have very strong beliefs, religious beliefs, and this goes across the aisle. We’ll get 25, 26 members of the Senate – Republican and Democrat alike – to come to prayer breakfast once a week. And one of the first things that we got was from our friends in Kosovo who had been in one of the prayer breakfasts that we helped to establish over there sending a note back saying “we’re keeping you in our prayers.” So there were lots of prayers and we think that has a lot to do with the success of what we’re seeing so far.

So, the next step after the surgery will be five weeks of radiation and that’ll start sometime after Christmas and through most of January and then it’s completed, but that’s not near as tough as the chemo or the surgery was.

Let’s talk a little bit about policy. You recently posted a picture on social media after one of your tele-townhalls of your father in a hemp field. Could you tell me why you posted that picture and your thoughts on growing hemp in South Dakota?

I took a couple of different pictures of it because I thought, you know, at some point the discussion was going to come up on this. Dad was born in ’27, and we think he was just in his early teens in this picture, so we think it was sometime around 1940 or ‘41, but that picture actually was posted in — what is now the Huron Daily Plainsman — but then it was called the Huronite. But they grew it then [for WWII] because of the need for that fiber to make ropes [for the ships].

So we know that hemp will grow here in South Dakota and when the time came to vote on the Farm Bill, there was a provision that said that each state has to do their own rules and so forth and decide for themselves. But the federal government is not going to restrict you from doing it and, under the Department of Ag[riculture], they would make rules for the basic framework for being allowed to plant hemp.

What I tell people is, don’t assume that this is the next greatest thing to try to plant because you’ve still got to have a market for what that is. If everybody starts growing in 80-acre plots a lot of hemp, let’s make darn sure there’s a market for that product that will make it worthwhile to grow it. The last thing in the world they want to do is to buy seed that right now is in demand and pay a lot for it and then plant it and suddenly find out that there’s no more demand for it because the markets aren’t there or because the market has been saturated.

The other piece on it that I think has got to be discussed is if law enforcement says this could cause us some problems in terms of finding out where there is marijuana being grown, I think you have to respect their concern and you’ve got to find a way to deal with it. And that’s where what we wanted was for each state to make that decision and to have a say about how that would occur. But we’ve grown hemp for years. They grew hemp back then and there was a reason for it, there was a market for it so it worked and if there’s a market today, fine.

Recently, South Dakota received a lot of national attention – and was the subject of a lot of memes – because of the state’s new “Meth: We’re On It” campaign. Would you just like to share your thoughts about it?

Well I caution, I’ve always tried to stay away from, as a governor trying to second-guess what a new governor is trying to do, okay?

When I became governor, I started a program called “Meth Makes You Ugly” and I did it because what we had discovered in talking with counselors and psychologists was girls were being given meth and once they got it they were hooked and guys were using it to control girls. We went high school to high school and we put up posters of what people looked like after they’d been on meth. Then we would go in and actually do seminars in the high schools and talk about the fact that this was bad stuff and it would make you look ugly, which we thought was a good message to send to teenagers, boys and girls alike. Every place we went, we found kids on meth. It was a bad problem when I was governor, it’s just as bad now.

A lot of the parts of the country, just like here in South Dakota, we have opioids as a problem, we’ve still got meth that’s really bad too. Meth is coming in, from south of the border, it’s still coming in. So, for the governor to say, “I’m going to try to do some shock therapy here, and I’m going to draw some attention to it.” Clearly, [Gov. Kristi Noem] got some attention drawn to the theme. The question will be, will that transform into action on meth? And, I’m not going to criticize her for trying to do something to wake people up to how serious it is, but if the only attention it gets is for the theme itself and the campaign itself, and it doesn’t transfer over to actually hitting people to let them know how serious this is, then it wouldn’t have worked.

On the other hand, I think we should give it an opportunity to work and then measure the results. So, I’m not going to condemn that program at this point. Let’s find out whether or not it works, and whether or not we actually get resulting attention on how serious the meth problem is here in South Dakota and we actually start to see a reduction.

The House of Representatives recently passed a stopgap measure to fund the government through Dec. 20. Do you feel with either the attention on the impeachment or just national politics as it is, that we will see a government shutdown in December?

I voted no on the stopgap measure because this should have been done before Oct. 1. These continuing resolutions that are based on your previous year’s appropriations bills do not allow any of the new contracts to go into place, new programs or the elimination of programs that weren’t working.

The estimated cost of doing a continuing resolution is about $5 billion for every three months of delays. So we’re already talking about additional expenses just because we can’t agree on the approach of about $5 billion additional to the taxpayers in this country. So I’m voting no on continuing resolutions unless we’re actually seeing progress made on the regular appropriations bill.

The other piece on this — I chair the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity in the Armed Forces Committee — we had made changes in our cybersecurity activities … that we would do to protect our information. That unified platform was due to get $100 million to get up and operational, which will help to protect our assets that are being stolen. Right now, we can’t do anything because they’re on hold because the continuing resolution doesn’t allow them to move forward with the new programs. That’s very frustrating to me, and this is not the way we should be running our country.

In South Dakota, during the time that I was the governor, during the time that I was in the legislature, we’d get our work done in basically a 40-day session. And we’d get it done 90 days before the beginning of the fiscal year and then everybody can see what it is, everybody can plan for it. By the time July 1 comes along, everybody’s ready to implement the new programs.

On the federal government level, Oct. 1 was the deadline. We didn’t even have all of the basic appropriations stuff completed until late in Sept. Then the agreements weren’t made to get everything done, even though there had been an earlier, big arrangement saying, “we know how much we’re going to spend for the next two years, we know what the rules are going to be in making this thing up.” And then they just fell apart because no wants to honor what they agreed to.

It’s a terrible way to run government and it takes real leadership to get to the point of getting it fixed. So, for me, I’ve told my leadership I’m not supporting continuing resolutions unless you make progress on the appropriations.

The other piece on this which is so important, even if we did everything perfectly under the appropriations process that we’ve been working under since 1974, the Budget Act of 1974, we’re still only voting on about 70% of what we spend because we vote on defense and on non-defense discretionary. But we don’t vote on any of the safety net programs of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or interest on the debt, which is the fastest rising of all of them. There’s a new proposal out there right now that [Senator] Mitt Romney (R-UT) is on and that I’m co-sponsoring with him, that will actually set up select committees of House and Senate members to actually start managing those very critical safety net trust funds, nobody is managing them today.

The interview took place on Friday, Nov. 22. The preceding Q&A was transcribed from a recording and was edited for length and clarity. 


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