State missing opportunity by cutting instead of investing

To reap benefits of let's say you're planning your household budget.

Things are tight these days.

But there is a place where you can invest some of your funds and be guaranteed a high return. You may not reap a windfall – that's rather difficult in the financial times we live in today.

But you are guaranteed to get back more money than you put in.

You don't have to be Warren Buffet to know that is a pretty good deal.

Our state Legislature and executive branch evidently have trouble recognizing a good deal when they see it when it comes to handling the state budget.

South Dakota's higher education system contributes $1.9 billion annually to the state's economy, the equivalent of 5.3 percent of its gross domestic product, according to a study done for the Board of Regents and released Monday.

The report by the Business Research Bureau at the University of South Dakota looked at things such as direct and indirect jobs, student and visitor spending in the six campus towns, and the cost of goods and services to support the higher education system.

In other words, South Dakota taxpayers, the equivalent of a household investor in the scenario painted at the beginning of this column, are receiving a pretty good return on their investment.

We can't help but wonder how much more South Dakota would have benefited if the state Legislature actually would have, well, invested in higher education this past year.

Legislators, with the governor's blessing, did a nice job of back-pedaling when it came time to decide whether to support higher ed.

Last May, while meeting in Vermillion, the South Dakota Board of Regents reviewed the effects of action the Legislature's took last March.

Lawmakers cut $6.5 million from the higher education budget. On April 15, Regents were forced to approve an average 4.6 percent increase in tuition and mandatory fees, which will replace about $2.1 million of those cuts. The board said it intended to have the public university system absorb the remainder of the cuts by reducing services or eliminating programs.

System-wide reductions that had to made following the Legislature's action include about $170,000 from the state's distance-learning consortium, $500,000 in performance funds, and $270,000 gained from a 35 percent reduction in the Student Technology Fellows program, which provides high-level technology support to university faculty. The Legislature also targeted a half-million dollars in cuts to the Cooperative Extension Service and the Agricultural Experiment Station, and $660,000 from the School for the Deaf.

As a result of across-the-board cuts at the institutional level, reductions totaling nearly $2.3 million came from a variety of programs and services at each institution.

"These cuts to higher education mean losses of jobs, losses of service, loss of a little bit of our future in the sense that we've been focused on research during the current administration," said Monte Kramer, the Regents' director of finance and administration. "We're going to have to give a little bit of that up here, I think that's disheartening for everybody."

On April 30, USD President James Abbott informed faculty and staff of the methods that eventually had to be in place at the university to deal with nearly a $1.2 million cut in its $150 million budget.

Despite the action of the Legislature, the study released this week concluded that the state's universities provide 5,326 direct jobs and 9,432 indirect jobs in business or industry that support higher education; the schools account for $182 million in economic activity through daily operations; visitors spend $30.6 million in off-campus spending when they attend athletic contests or other university events, and students spend $192 million on goods and services while attending a university.

Most assuredly, Vermillion, home to USD, is a direct beneficiary that higher education makes to the state's economy.

We can only wonder how much stronger our city and state would be financially if the Legislature, in the future, makes the no-brainer decision of investing more heavily in higher education.

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