This year marks a big transition for one Yankton resident in state government.
After eight years of service as South Dakota’s lieutenant governor, Matt Michels will be a private citizen again after this weekend.
Michels, a native of Vermillion, has been a part of some of the biggest accomplishments and challenges the state has seen in the past decade. Recently, he reflected on those moments with the Press & Dakotan.
Michels was no stranger to Pierre.
He had served in the Legislature from 1999-2007, which included four years as speaker of the house.
It was during this time he befriended another Pierre regular — Dennis Daugaard.
"I was speaker of the house, which would interface with Gov. Daugaard when he was lieutenant governor, so we became friends in the Legislature," he said.
However, Michels said he’d come across him outside of the confines of Pierre.
"The first time I met him, Jim Abbott invited my wife and I to a Children’s Home Society fundraiser," Michels said. "In my prior life, I’d prosecuted a lot of child sexual abuse, and Children’s Home Society takes care of kids in need like that. Dennis is executive director of the foundation and that’s how we met."
Michels, who had helped campaign for Daugaard when he first ran in 2010, said the gubernatorial candidate eventually approached him with a big question.
"He asked me to see him after the primary," Michels said. "He vacationed out at the resort at Lewis & Clark, and he said, ‘Can you come out to the restaurant?’ I sat down with him and the current chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, and he asked me if I’d be interested."
Michels said that candidate Daugaard had a few requests of him.
"I said, ‘I would be very interested, but I’d like to interview what you think it should be,’" he said. "He said to me, ‘Number one, I want a partner. I want somebody, number two, who would be able to step in if something happened to me. And number three, I want somebody who will give me unvarnished opinions and views. I know all three of those elements would apply to you.’"
Michels then laid out his frustrations with going to Pierre, spending time away from family and feeling that nothing impactful had been done — and he wanted to make sure that this would not be the case if he accepted the position.
"The phrase I used is, ‘Will we be doing something seismic about areas that matter to you and me?’" he said. "He said, ‘Absolutley.’ He’s always been a man of his word and continues to be that. He’s no different in public than he is in private."
After backtracking and getting the blessing of his wife Karen — who, Michels said, told him it would be a "great adventure" — Michels accepted the spot on the ticket.
That November, Dennis Daugaard was easily elected the 32nd governor of South Dakota.
It started a great adventure with many highs and lows.
A Rocky Start
That adventure got off to a bit of a rocky start — before either Daugaard or Michels had even taken office.
"The week after the election, there were four of us in a budget briefing that takes place before a governor offers a budget to the Legislature the first week in December," Michels said. "It’s disclosed to us, in this meeting, right away that we’re in deep financial trouble in this state. It was a real gut punch for Dennis, for me and our team because we didn’t know it was coming, didn’t have a reference for it, had a number of initiatives we wanted to undertake."
He said this would define much of the first legislative session over which he and Daugaard presided.
"It resulted in, the first few months, each action and each direction towards balancing a budget that was not balanced," he said. "That involved the 10 percent cuts, a lot of negotiations, a lot of public concern, some anger."
But before they could get to the business of working on the state’s economy, Michels said there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work with the inaugural event and getting their administration off the ground.
"It’s just an amazing event for two kids that didn’t come from public service, didn’t come from money, didn’t come from politics," he said. "It was very humbling and very disconcerting. At the same time, we were having meetings every day for 10 hours straight being briefed by various organizations and agencies of the state and, (also), trying to select who it is that would serve us in the cabinet, our staff members, etc. It was a whirlwind, or as we’re fond of saying, it was like drinking from a firehose."
The challenges didn’t end at the budget.
Later that same year, Mother Nature decided to play its hand, starting with the Missouri River flooding of 2011.
"Not only was it life-threatening, (there were) fights we had with various agencies of the federal government telling us what was going to happen and what did not happen based on what we had calculated," Michels said. "It was the longest-term flood in the nation’s history."
The floods would also have a personal effect on Michels.
"I was honored to be part of (relief efforts) and head up the fight down here in the south with a bunch of other people, from here all the way to Sioux City," he said "But it did affect me for a number of years after that. I messed up my back. It eventually required surgery and I was in excruciating pain for a couple of years. It was truly life-changing."
He added there’s one person that helped him get through these difficult times.
"There’s no way I could’ve ever served in public service or continued without my wife," he said. "She’s a rock."
However, Michels said the people of South Dakota met the challenge of the 2011 floods.
"You saw the resilience of the people," he said. "As the governor said, ‘As high as the water rose, the people of South Dakota rose higher.’"
Michels said the state would face other challenges during his tenure brought on by a higher power — of government.
"The total dysfunction of the federal government was a real surprise to the governor and me," he said. "We’d been through a number of these shutdowns, as is occurring right now. The only reason it’s only a partial shutdown is because of the interrelationship between the state and the federal government. We expressed strong arguments over the years when they’ve had these shutdowns, that that’s no way to run government at all. That’s very, very frustrating because of that interrelationship and having to plan for it."
Technical education, the opioid crisis and Native American health have also proven to be major challenges over the last eight years.
Accomplishments And Standouts
The seismic moments that Michels had been hoping for also came — and in abundance.
Michels said one of the greatest legacies of the administration has been fiscal responsibility.
"We’ve always had a balanced budget," he said. "We’ve lived within our means. At the same time, we’ve increased our bond rating to AAA, which results in a lot of savings when schools borrow money or the state borrows money. It saves millions of dollars."
He added that changes in the state retirement system have become nationally recognized.
"It is renowned nationally and I was honored to be on the retirement system board of trustees," he said. "It is the best-funded in the nation and is there to take care of people who have served us in government."
Increased road funding was also a highlight of the administration’s time in Pierre, according to Michels.
"We were able to have some of the best roads in the nation because we were ahead of the game in funding," he said.
Michels said elevating teacher salaries in the state was also a great accomplishment for the administration.
"That was a tremendous battle, but it has been very, very successful," he said.
Michels said South Dakota’s recent trailblazing on internet sales tax will help the state.
"I think, no doubt, arguing in front of the Supreme Court that we have the right to tax internet sales was a tremendous victory," he said. "It won’t result in a deluge of income, but it will provide for stabilization and equalization of Main Street merchants against internet savings that wouldn’t occur, and then we’ll collect sales tax off that activity."
He said he’s also enjoyed the outreach in state government — both during and before his tenure as lieutenant governor.
"I also will really remember — after close to 20 years of service — working with good people in the Legislature, regardless of their political background. You can disagree and not be disagreeable. I think that we should all continue to be — and hopefully the governor and I have reflected being civil and respecting people’s views, understanding why they have opinions and don’t berate individuals and don’t be condescending, but try to understand and work towards a common goal of the betterment of our society."
Michels said he also witnessed a great deal of dedication among state employees.
"What I will always talk about is the amazing caliber of public servants that work for us in state and local government," he said. "Everybody from law enforcement on the front lines that are willing to make sure we’re protected to — just this last week — people willing to put their lives on the line clearing roads so that we can be safe. We have individuals that go into dangerous situations to rescue babies at risk. We have people in the court system that are taking care of individuals with addictions. We have people working in our hospitals and nursing centers like our Human Services Center and our state veterans facility that are dedicated to those missions. It’s more than just a paycheck."
Today (Saturday), with the inauguration of Kristi Noem as the state’s 33rd governor, Matt Michels’ great adventure as lieutenant governor comes to a close.
But life will go on for him right here in Yankton.
"What I’m looking forward to is spending more time with my wife and not traveling as much," he said. "This pace is very, very hectic. … I’m going to find a whole new bandwidth of time that I’m really looking forward to. My wife and I put together a great ‘honey-do’ list over Christmas of things to handle. I’m back at my law practice here in town and represent what I had been doing before I went to become lieutenant governor."
Michels said he hopes his legacy is in more than just his name.
"You’ll remember individuals, maybe, two generations," he said. "That’s not a long period of time. And if you get caught up in ego, hubris, fighting, people aren’t going to remember your name. That’s not what this is all about. It is about your deeds. Nobody knows who built the state capitol. Nobody knows who built the Human Services Center out here or the GAR Hall. But they’re beautiful and they stand in testimony to serving others. So I would hope what we have done is reflect and continue to urge people to run for office, be involved, be understanding, be civil and be involved in civics and public service."
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