Budget balancing to occupy legislative time

Budget balancing to occupy legislative time By Susan Smith PIERRE (CNS) � South Dakota's legislative leaders say it's likely once again that balancing the budget and deciding what to fund will take up a good share of their time during the 2005 legislative session.

That session begins Jan. 11 and will recess March 4. Lawmakers will return March 22 to consider any bills vetoed by Gov. Mike Rounds.

"I would say generally speaking it's going to be the age-old budgetary allocating issues as there is every session," said Senate Majority Leader Eric Bogue, R-Faith.

During Rounds' budget address in December he focused on the increasing costs of the federal Medicaid program. A portion of the money to provide health care to disadvantaged people comes from the state. During the last year inpatient hospital costs for Medicaid recipients totaled $80 million. Due to catastrophic illnesses, 276 people generated 53 percent of those costs. In 2003 Medicaid covered half of the babies born in the state during their first year of life.

Rounds also talked about balancing the needs of the state's changing demographics, which might cause a shift in funding priorities from educating the state's children to caring for its elderly.

Bogue said lawmakers would have to consider how to do both.

"Because we certainly need to do both," he said. "I think the tough years on balancing things comes from a sense that we probably have more issues we'd like to fund than we have the ability to fund. We always have some debate as far as setting our priorities are concerned."

House Speaker Matt Michels, R-Yankton, said the increasing cost of Medicaid comes more from those people who need it to pay for treatment of catastrophic illnesses like cancer, hemophilia, recovery from major accidents and care for premature babies than from the elderly population. Caps on nursing home beds have kept long-term care costs down.

The federal government is basically bankrupt, Michels said, and that's causing a train wreck in the Medicaid program when paired with increased use.

Senate Minority Leader Garry Moore, D-Yankton, said the Legislature could decide to look more closely at health care and insurance costs.

"I think that there will probably be legislation introduced to set up a permanent health care task force � to look into health care costs and insurance costs so the citizen's of the state of South Dakota can afford health insurance and hopefully take some of these people off of Medicaid," Moore said.

Rounds said he wants to add the equivalent of 359 full time positions, or FTEs, to state government. Many of them are under the Board of Regents and some must be added to meet federal grant requirements. But Rounds argues that adding some of those hours will actually save the state money. He wants to add nursing staff to the Human Services Center to trim overtime costs.

"I think the FTE issue is going to be looked at pretty close," House Minority Leader Dale Hargens, D-Miller, said. "He's going to have to sell that one."

Rep. Maggie Gillespie, D-Hudson, agreed.

"The FTE issue has had attention since it was revealed in December," Gillespie said. "There's been some quibbling; 360 is a substantial increase. I guess we'll just have to determine whether or not there's any cost savings."

Michels said he thinks working out FTE issues will require a steep learning curve for some lawmakers.

"The real discussion is going to be does it increase funding," he said. "Does it increase the burden to the state taxpayer?"

Other issues lawmakers predict will spark debate this session are:

* A reworking of the state's criminal laws that involves an estimated 50 bills.

* The results of a West River working group that is trying to improve relations between the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks, hunters and landowners.

* Property tax assessment.

* An abortion bill that was defeated last year that is likely to be introduced again.

* Increased aid to school districts in sparsely populated areas. This proposal was also considered during the 2004 session, but failed to gain enough support to pass. Bogue said after Rounds' December budget address that problems with the plan may have been worked out. He gives the measure a greater chance of success during the 2005 session.

* Education funding. Moore argues it will be the true hot button issue with lawmakers debating whether Rounds' proposed funding increase is truly 3 percent or less.

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