Abbott seeks opportunity as problem solver Jim and Colette Abbott wave to well-wishers Saturday morning as they participate in the Dakota Days Parade in Vermillion. Abbott, who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination after taking a leave as USD president, hopes to focus his abilities on solving a myriad of challenges facing the state. by David Lias Jim Abbott remembers the moment he knew he wanted to be governor of South Dakota.
He was in Sioux Falls, listening to an out-of-state member of Congress talk with reporters at a political event.
In response to a question, Abbott said, the politician told a reporter, "I don't know why anyone would want to run for governor in this state. You've got problems in K through 12, you've got a $35 million deficit, you've got problems with reconciliation and reservations, you're a low wage state.
"I thought to myself," Abbott said, "those are exactly the reasons to run for governor. When you get right down to it, those are things that we absolutely have to take care of if we are going to be the kind of state that we can be."
Abbott said of the 176 school districts in South Dakota, about 170 are either stagnant or losing population, including those in larger communities such as Rapid City, Sturgis and Miller.
Abbott said he was among 15,000 young South Dakotans who received high school diplomas in 1966.
Presently, there are 9,500 high school seniors in the state, and that number will decline by another 1,000 before it stabilizes.
"What does that mean for USD?" he asked. "What does that mean for a less than heretofore enlightened policy on the part of the Legislature and the Regents that says, 'South Dakota is an island and we don't want out-of-state students?"'
While the state struggles with a dwindling population of school-age children, it must face the challenges of caring for a steadily growing number of citizens age 65 and older.
"It the fastest growing segment of our population � we are second only to Iowa as the fastest aging state," Abbott said.
And the state's younger people are finding increased challenges in the workplace.
"We have essentially an economic development strategy which is based on low wage," he said. "We have 2.6 percent unemployment versus 9 percent unemployment when Citibank came here in the late '70s.
"Our economic development, over the last 10 to 20 years has been based on 'you furnish the jobs from some other state and we'll give you $5,000 a job � not based on the quality of those jobs, but the quantity of those jobs," Abbott said. "To me, if you put all those pieces together, you get a not too appealing puzzle."
Abbott said current trends are demonstrating that virtually every K-12 school in the state will be opting out of the state's property tax freeze if something isn't done about education funding.
Abbott said he's not pessimistic about South Dakota's future, however. He believes the adoption of new strategies can significantly help the state meet its many challenges.
"We, it seems to me as a state, we don't tend to make significant changes until we are in a semi-crisis, and I think that's where we are," he said.
A top priority of Abbott as governor would be increased economic development in South Dakota. He proposes the construction of two significant research centers in Rapid City and Sioux Falls.
"We've got to re-invent our own economy," he said. "We've got to create the future that we want in economic development, and everything else will flow with it."
Increased research over the next two decades in the state will bring high value, high wage paying jobs, and will have a highly positive side benefit, Abbott said.
"You can't compete in a highly technical world if you don't have a really strong K-12," Abbott said. "That's how you build a better state."
Other areas of South Dakota must also step up economic development, he said.
"In small towns, we have to do better with agricultural development," Abbott said.