Legislative Report by Sen. John Reedy The 77th Legislative Session of the South Dakota Legislature began this week with Gov. Janklow's final State of the State Address. While the governor spent a great deal of time talking about the problems facing the South Dakota, he offered few solutions.
Perhaps the most controversial item in the governor's speech was his proposal to force local government entities to pass opt-out measures by a 60 percent majority in public elections. This could make it extremely difficult for school districts and counties to obtain more revenue in times of budget shortfalls and could lead to a crisis.
Democrats argue that this is an issue of local control. Decisions on local tax issues should be left to the local voters and not be dictated to them by the state.
It was a surprise to see the governor omit the possibility of budget shortfalls facing our state. Throughout the session, the public will hear much discussion about tapping into our budget reserves to balance the budget.
While the Legislature may have to use some reserve dollars to meet the budget commitments for this fiscal year, the debate to use more reserves for future budget items will be a much tougher battle.
In times of the recession, the state must do the same as its citizens: tighten its belt and look for efficiencies. This Legislature must assess our priorities and question every dime we appropriate. For that reason, the Democratic Caucus will be offering a Constitutional Amendment requiring future state Legislatures to pass general appropriations bills by a 60 percent majority of its members.
The Democrats' goal is to make the state's budget process more fiscally responsible rather than being about the simple majorities pork projects. It will be interesting to see if this Legislature wants to hold themselves to the same standards as local voters.
Education as usual will spark a great deal of debate. Democrats will be pushing to put a state scholarship on the ballot and make it a part of our Constitution.
South Dakota is the only state in the nation that doesn't offer its students a scholarship to help them obtain a higher education. A scholarship program for South Dakota is long overdue. Democrats will also be asking the Legislature to look a proposal that would set aside REDI Fund dollars for student loans for South Dakota students.
If we want to develop our economy to its fullest potential, we must be willing to invest in education.
The governor leveled claims that small school districts are hoarding money while their test scores continue to decline and teachers remain the lowest paid. He used charts comparing the average test scores and salaries of small school to those of the larger schools. Many ask if this is a fair comparison.
When comparing test scores, one student who performs poorly will have a much greater impact on the overall average in a small school than one student who scores the same in a large school. This just shows that the governor's numbers are just numbers.
The same logic can be applied to teacher salaries. Larger school districts have many more teachers to divvy up budget reserves, making budget reserve dollars per teacher much lower in the larger districts.
While budget reserves may have grown to a level to cause concern, those levels are beginning to drop. Gov. Janklow may be right in that there are people who don't trust the federal government. However, State Sen. John McIntyre may have been correct in his assessment for the small school reserves: perhaps small schools don't trust state government.
This week the governor's special committees on education presented the Education Committee with their findings. One of the most controversial topics of these reports was school consolidation. The Democratic Caucus agrees with incentives for school consolidations, but we are not in favor of forced consolidations.
Aside from consolidation, there was much common ground amongst the various committees on some of the less controversial issues. All wanted to improve accountability and standards. All agreed that teachers were the most important aspect in a child's education; and for that reason teacher education and retention in the state need to be improved.
A very popular idea was the teacher-mentoring program, in which more experienced teachers would help those with less experience deal with the problems that new teachers face.
Stream line sales tax legislation is an issue to watch during this session. Currently, the state of South Dakota is not collecting most of the sales tax revenue from items sold via the Internet. The Internet Tax Freedom Act passed by the United States Congress in 1998 currently protects companies selling their goods on-line.
However, states are working together to streamline sales tax laws across the country. If 22 states can agree on a plan, the federal government may allow states to begin collecting those sales taxes from Internet companies. We will be learning much more about this issue throughout the session.
Democrats are also proposing to help improve our rural economy by supporting legislation that supports renewable energy resources. South Dakota has a tremendous potential to develop ethanol, bio-diesel, and wind energy. I hope this Legislature will make proactive moves that will develop these ideas and put more money into the pockets of our family farmers and ranchers.
I look forward to hearing your comments and questions on these issues throughout the remainder of the session. Please feel free to contact me at (605) 773-4494.