Governor-elect Kristi Noem’s choice of former legislator Steve Westra to be commissioner of economic development continued a long pattern of change in one of South Dakota’s most important jobs in state government.
Westra, a Republican who represented a Sioux Falls district in the state House of Representatives from 2013 through 2016, serves on Noem’s transition team. He will succeed the interim commissioner, Aaron Scheibe, when Congresswoman Noem takes the oath as governor January 5.
Westra played a prominent role in the 2018 election as a leader against the ballot measure that would have raised tobacco taxes in order to raise money for scholarships to technical-institute students. Companies with tobacco interests provided at least $6 million to defeat IM 25.
The prime supporter of the tax-for-scholarships effort was Rep. Mark Mickelson, a Republican who represented the same legislative district as Westra. Delegates to the South Dakota Republican Party’s statewide convention last summer took a formal position opposing the tax increase.
Westra will actually succeed Scott Stern, whose family runs a fuel-distribution firm based at Freeman. Governor Dennis Daugaard announced the appointment of Stern as commissioner in mid-2016. Stern succeeded Daugaard’s original commissioner, Pat Costello of Sioux Falls, who accepted the post in 2011.
Both Noem, a Republican, and her main opponent this fall, state Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton, said they wanted someone new to run the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
U.S. Senator Mike Rounds was the previous governor. Rounds combined a wide group of former former cabinet posts to form the Department of Tourism and State Development.
Rounds originally appointed John Calvin of Watertown, who has been active for decades in South Dakota economic development and is a current member of the state board that oversees low-interest loans to businesses. After Calvin stepped down, Rounds named Jim Hagen, who had been a senior member of the previous Janklow administration.
Rounds later picked Richard Benda, who had worked in prior state administrations, went to New York state to work in economic development and had returned to work as an economic development leader at Watertown.
Benda allegedly committed suicide in 2013 amid a state criminal investigation into his activities secretively routing government money to a private business that recruited foreign investors for South Dakota projects in exchange for U.S. visas, a program known as EB-5.
The late Governor Bill Janklow had at least two economic development commissioners: Ron Wheeler, a Watertown businessman who doubled as secretary of transportation; and later Chris Braendlin, who moved to Janklow’s U.S. House staff in 2003 and was in the car when Janklow drove through a stop sign and motorcyclist Randy Scott died. Janklow resigned from his U.S. House seat after a Moody County jury convicted him in the death.