Practice rather than policy focus of much of Cracker Barrel meeting

Saturday's Cracker Barrel meeting in Vermillion, featuring District 17 Reps. Eldon Nygaard of Vermillion and Jamie Boomgarden of Chancellor often centered more on practice rather than policy, on the things lawmakers often must do to try to get their legislation approved.

It involves horse-trading of sorts, agreeing to vote for a colleague's resolution in exchange for support of a pending piece of legislation, for example. This glimpse of the legislative process helped local citizens learn that it's not always a pretty process, and it's not always successful.

Judy Zwolak took Rep. Nygaard to task for his support of a House concurrent resolution that calls for "balanced teaching" of global warming in public schools in South Dakota. Rep. Nygaard voted for the resolution; Boomgarden did not support it.

"It never should have made it out of the House," Zwolak said. "There are many people in this room – concerned parents … – who are very upset about this. It's an embarrassment to South Dakota, and it presents us in a very unscientific light."

Nygaard admitted at first that he likely might have accidentally voted for the resolution when he meant to vote against it. Later, his comments reflected how legislators make so many votes on resolutions and bills during a session that it's easy to forget the reasoning behind their decisions.

"Concurrent resolutions are merely political tools," Nygaard said initially. "As far as I'm concerned, they have no political weight whatsoever … I probably pushed the wrong button quite honestly, because it clearly does not represent the desires of my constituents."

As members of the Cracker Barrel audience continued to voice their displeasure over the resolution and the effect it could have on public school curriculum, Nygaard recalled the reasoning behind his vote.

"I just realized why I voted that way," he said. "I needed another vote to try to pass what I thought was sensible," Nygaard said, describing a piece of legislation that he hoped would be approved. "So I went across the hall to someone who is about as far right as you can get, and he agreed to vote for my legislation if I would vote for the resolution.

"I really have a problem with the far right and the far left running this state," he added. "We don't have a majority of Republicans or Democrats in this state. The middle is made of up independents, and the conservative Democrats and the conservative Republicans. If we could get back to have the middle of both of our parties running this state, we'd have a better government running this state. We need more Democrats; we need our Republican Party to reform itself."

A woman in the audience told the two lawmakers that she didn't care so much about the legislative process. She is more interested the results of the legislators' accomplishments while they are in Pierre.

"I'm became concerned when I heard that this resolution (about global warming) was passed," she said. "It means a lot to me that my kids are educated well, and they are being taught by the highest standards that are out there."

"When it comes to a vote that really means that, that can determine that, I'll be there," Nygaard said.

University of South Dakota President James Abbott was in attendance at the meeting, but had to leave early to attend a function on the USD campus. He asked the two lawmakers to support the Opportunity Scholarship offered to students who attend the state's public universities.

"It's the only state scholarship that we have, and we're the only state in the country that doesn't have a needs-based scholarship," he said. "The Opportunity Scholarship is $1,000 to any student who has a 24 or above ACT and who took a certain curriculum while in high school."

Different legislation has been introduced calling for high school students to complete more required classes before being eligible, or for delaying payments of the scholarship to recipients until they are sophomores at a South Dakota university.

"I think that is tantamount to trying to kill it," Abbott told the legislators. "… I'm just curious where we are on that, because it's really important to us."

Boomgarden told Abbott that he likes the idea of increasing the number of required credit hours to be eligible for the scholarship from 30 to 32.

"I've also heard that there are rumors of pro-rating the money involved in the scholarship, and paying students at the end of their freshman year or the beginning of their sophomore year," Boomgarden said. He explained that it is believed that such a delay can help the state better meet its budget obligations this fiscal year by adding more time to the scholarship's payment schedule.

"It's basically an accounting trick that I don't necessarily approve of," Abbott said, who warned that delaying payments to students until they are sophomores likely will be detrimental to the state's higher education goals.

"Students tend to stay where they attend school their freshman year," Abbott said. "We've gone at USD from 68 percent who attend here their freshman year and stay, to 74 percent. Now, if you let someone go out of state their freshman year, they aren't coming home for a $1,000. That's why I think the payment should go up front, because it encourages the student to stay."

Nygaard asked audience members to give him direct input on legislation he sponsored that would outlaw drivers from text messaging on cell phones while operating a motor vehicle.

He said he believes drivers who engage it such activity become impaired in the operation of their vehicles because they're concentrating on sending a message rather than driving.

The majority of the audience agreed that the bill should have been approved.

Nygaard said the main reason he introduced the legislation was to hopefully give a tool to law enforcement that would allow them to interact properly when they encounter someone whose operation of a motor vehicle is impaired because they are texting.

"It is to hopefully allow officers to give such drivers a warning, to tell them to pull over to the side of the road and stop, and then send a text message rather than doing it while they are driving," he said. "It will correct the problem once they do that. And when mom and dad find out that they are doing that while driving the family car, and it's against the law, and their insurance may not cover any accidents that may occur … I had some technical reasons for supporting this bill."

District 17 Sen. Ben Nesselhuf was not present at Saturday's meeting, which was held in the Vermillion Public Library.

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