Agreeing to disagree; Cracker Barrel session reveals differences

Agreeing to disagree; Cracker Barrel session reveals differences District 17's legislative team of Rep. Judy Clark, Rep. B.J. Nesselhuf and Sen. John "Joe" Reedy heard constituents' concerns and commented on happenings in Pierre in the first Cracker Barrel session of the year, held Saturday morning in the Vermillion Public Library. by David Lias The first local Vermillion Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Cracker Barrel meeting of this year's South Dakota legislative session revealed that local lawmakers don't always see eye-to-eye with the constituents they represent, and vice-versa.

District 17 Rep. Judy Clark, a Republican, at one point found herself defending the statistics of a study authorized by Gov. William Janklow.

And freshman Rep. B.J. Nesselhuf, a Democrat, ran into a wall of opposition when he stated that he does not favor offering proposed Regents Scholars funds to students who attend private higher learning institutions in South Dakota.

Three plus two

One topic discussed at Saturday's meeting, held in the Vermillion Public Library, is a proposal to bump teacher salaries by 3 percent, plus an additional 2 percent. It's commonly referred to as simply three plus two.

District 17 Sen. John "Joe" Reedy said he would rather see teachers' pay increased by the rate of inflation plus 2 percent.

"I would prefer that it would be inflation plus 2 (percent); it would then be 3.8 percent plus 2 (percent)," he said. "But either that or the three plus two is better than what we have today."

"I'm not opposed to it necessarily," Clark said. "I'd like some more information about it. Funding of schools is pretty complex, and we talk about what schools get in state aid, but there are a great number of districts that get more money than just state aid."

Clark spoke of the challenges facing many school districts in South Dakota, especially in West River.

"We've got to figure out a way to keep those school districts alive when you have hundreds of miles in your school district," she said. "So I don't think it's an easy thing to deal with. I'm leaning towards the inflation plus two, but I want more details about it and how we're going take this money and make it as easy as possible and painless as possible for school districts to consolidate.

"We need to make sure that what we're talking about here is the best education for our kids, not necessarily keeping the buildings going, and certainly there are plenty of places where school districts at a county level have organized so that each former school district keeps its school," she added. "I'm not wedded to anything yet, but I really think we have to be realistic and figure out the best way to provide a good education to our kids."

An audience member reminded the lawmakers that Iowa recently set aside $40 million to increase teacher salaries.

"Are there any plans in the South Dakota Legislature to address this issue, to put money aside to increase teachers' salaries?" he asked.

"I would hope that the money that is going for inflation plus 2 (percent) is going to teachers'salaries," Clark said. "I think that is part of what we are increasing the money for."

"That inflation plus 2 (percent) really doesn't address the issue that South Dakota has the lowest paid teachers in the nation," the man responded, "so a 5 percent increase, that is 3 percent plus 2 percent of nothing, is nothing, and it's not going to recruit more teachers to stay in South Dakota."

Disagreement over study "We have moved up. I'm not bragging about this, we've moved up from lowest to 48th (in pay), but that's not the only thing you deal with," Clark said. "As you know, it's the disposal income that makes a difference. Disposal income-wise, we're 28th in the country, so we're pretty close to half-way."

The Cracker Barrel guest asked Clark about the source of her statistics. She responded that they came from a broadly based, non-partisan task force appointed by Gov. William Janklow.

"Our governor put it together?" the man said, laughing.

"I don't think it's fair to say that," Clark responded.

"I think so," the man said.

"You don't know the people who made up this task force," Clark said. "The task force was made up of a broadly-based group of people. It wasn't simply people that the governor selected that would come up with information that he might want to see.

"You can see the entire report, and you can see that the statistics they use, the information that's included, is factual. They're not making this up, so I feel pretty confident in the report," she added.

The three District 17 legislators were urged by one audience member to support a reciprocity agreement that would allow Nebraska and Iowa students who attend South Dakota universities to be offered tuition rates similar to those offered to students from North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

The universities hope the decrease in tuition will draw more Iowa and Nebraska students whose numbers have dwindled since non-resident tuition increased more than five years ago.

Before the change, USD attracted 278 Iowa and Nebraska students each year, compared with fewer than 100 students in recent years.

"With the bridge being built across the river to Nebraska," asked a local citizen, "doesn't it make sense then for us as USD people here to try to get something for Nebraska?

"Do you know how many people will then find that USD is accessible, and will look here rather than going to Creighton or some of the smaller colleges in Nebraska? The same thing goes for Iowa."

Nesselhuf's view opposed

Nesselhuf told the Cracker Barrel audience that he favors allowing Gov. William Janklow's proposed Regent Scholar funds to be used by students attending only the state's public higher education facilities.

"This puts me at a disagreement with basically most of my own family," he said, noting that he has one brother who has graduated from Augustana, and a second sibling who is attending that institution.

Janklow has proposed a scholarship program that would be funded from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement. Students who take a full range of math, science, language and other courses would qualify for the scholarships if they attend one of South Dakota's six public universities or four technical schools.

"I can understand the cost of a private school," Nesselhuf said. "My concern is that if we are going to use this money for students, we need to make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck, and when we look at a school like Augustana which costs $19,000 a year to attend, $1,500, which the scholarship is going to be to students in their first year, is not going to make or break whether students attend Augustana.

"At USD, however, where tuition is more in the area of $5,000, that's a huge difference," he added.

Nesselhuf argued that he believes that he needs to support public higher education in South Dakota, especially as he represents District 17, the home of USD.

His views were met with sharp disagreement.

"The issue is not Augustana," a man in the audience said. "The issue is the right of people in South Dakota to share equally in the tobacco money. I'm a smoker, if my daughter to goes to Augie, I want her to get the money."

Clark noted before the Cracker Barrel session that disagreements among lawmakers and constituents are bound to happen.

"We're obviously not going to agree on everything. My total goal is to do the best I can for this district and this state, and sometimes you have to take a broad view to do that," she said. "When I don't necessarily agree with you 100 percent, it's not that I don't necessarily agree with the goals, but that we have to deal with the whole picture and we have to deal with facts."

The next Cracker Barrel session will be held at 10 a.m. Feb. 17 at the Vermillion library.

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