Between The Lines

The timing of Susan Urahn's observation in the Wall Street Journal this week couldn't have been better timed.

She noted that when President Obama signed H.R. 1586 – the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act – last Tuesday, sending $26 billion in aid to the states, Democrats called it an economic stimulus plan necessary to save jobs. Republicans said it allows states to postpone making tough decisions to balance their budgets. The truth? It does both.

The ink was barely dry on the issue of the Journal that featured her opinion piece when news came from Pierre that Gov. Rounds decided that, yeah, we can use South Dakota's allocation of dollars from that bill to help fund education.

According to a news release from Pierre, Rounds has agreed to accept $47.2 million in federal stimulus money to help pay for Medicaid and fund state aid to local schools.

Rounds had previously said he might not accept the one-time money if Congress attached too many strings to it.

"The state budget office and the Department of Education received the requested federal guidance last Friday that was necessary to assure South Dakota could qualify without additional strings attached to the funding," Rounds said in the news release.

The $26.3 million the state is set to receive to support education will be used in lieu of state general funds. The state funds appropriated for the 2011 budget will be used for the 2012 budget.

The state will receive $20.9 million to pay for this year's Medicaid expenses.

It's nice to think that, wow, we dodged another bullet here in South Dakota. Important programs like education for our young people and health care for our elderly have once again been funded.

While breathing a collective sigh of relief, we can't help but wonder about the fate of those programs next come next year.

South Dakota currently has a conservative in the U.S. Senate. It has a conservative Republican who appears to be challenging both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and our incumbent Democrat in the U.S. House as she makes a bid for Congress.

And, judging from the general mood of the national electorate, at least according to news reports, people aren't happy with Congress or the Obama Administration, or the general state of affairs in our country.

They claim that taxes are too high (even though they're lower than they were during the Clinton years). They claim Washington is out of touch. They claim the stimulus isn't working, and the federal deficit is spiraling out of control.

In other words, it appears that voters are in the mood to elect people to Congress who aren't afraid to tighten the federal purse strings. Which really sounds good.

But this is no time for snap decisions. We urge South Dakota voters to truly do their homework, as September and the formal kickoff time for political campaigns leading up to the November election are nearly upon us.

We will be electing someone – either the incumbent or her challenger – to the U.S. House. Our conservative senator is unopposed, and may find himself in the majority if Republicans are successful in defeating Democrats this fall.

Which means, perhaps more than ever, South Dakotans need to carefully weigh the philosophies and ideas presented by candidates for governor and the state Legislature.

Because, let's face it. The feds bailed out our state this year, to the tune of over $47 million. There's a good chance we won't receive a similar gift from Uncle Sam next year.

And we need to be prepared for that.

Urahn notes some of the steps states have experienced in recent years in dealing with shrinking revenues and tighter budgets. It hasn't been a pretty process in some states.

Arizona, for instance, eliminated state funding for full-day kindergarten and closed state parks. Students at state universities in California, Florida and New York are seeing double-digit tuition boosts.

Uhran observed that these cuts run the risk of hurting vulnerable populations, threatening states' long-term fiscal health, and undermining the fragile economic recovery. By providing more aid, Congress concluded that on balance the short-term funding would do more good than harm.

But now that they've been given some breathing room by the new federal funds, she writes, every state facing chronic structural deficits – that is, projected expenditures consistently outstripping projected revenues – should take seriously the idea of rethinking government.

The above paragraph seems to accurately describe the state of affairs in South Dakota, doesn't it?

Urahn, the managing director of the Pew Center on the States, a division of The Pew Charitable Trusts, notes across-the-board budget cuts are not the best way to reduce spending.  She urges state leaders must do a far better job of using data to understand what works – and put an end to what doesn't.

States, she contends, need to operate more effectively and efficiently. Whether by consolidating services or improving their procurement practices, they need to manage to the bottom line. State purchasing totals $200 billion a year for everything from building roads to buying desks and computers. Conservative estimates by Pew suggest they could cumulatively slice 5 percent to 10 percent from that figure.

She also calls on states need to re-examine how they recruit and retain their work force. Most state governments have not changed, she writes, and they are not well positioned to compete with business for an increasingly mobile work force.

Urahn notes that solutions to the current affairs among all state governments will require good data, rigorous analysis, bipartisan cooperation, public engagement and – most importantly – a willingness among state leaders to make tough decisions.

It will also take willingness on our part to support and elect candidates best suited to serve South Dakota during these challenging times.

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