Budget top concern at Saturday meeting

The relaxed, informal atmosphere that usually accompanies a District 17 legislative meeting in Vermillion was absent Saturday.

State Sen. Eldon Nygaard of Vermillion, and State Rep. Tom Jones of Viborg faced a tense audience who expressed some fear and discontent about proposed deep cuts to the state�s budget, and the economic and social impact that would follow in the Vermillion community.

Over 50 Vermillion area citizens listened as some audience members voiced concerns about the negative effects Gov. Dennis Daugaard�s proposed 10 percent across-the-board cut to the general fund would have on education, and health and social services in the community.

Because of a scheduling conflict, District 17 Rep. Jamie Boomgarden was unable to attend Saturday�s meeting.

Jones, a freshman member of the state House of Representatives this year, said his goal at Saturday's packed meeting, held in a boardroom of the Vermillion Area Chamber oF Commerce and Development Company�s office � was to listen and learn.

�We're looking at seven years that we've overspent our budget, where we've spent more than we've taken in. We have a crunch now where we're trying to do basically everything in one year. I think we probably shouldn't try to fix this budget in one year,� he said. �I think we probably should do something with a sunset over more of a length of time. I've been in business; I know that you have to stay within your income. But I don't think you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think we need to put a little more thought to this.�

The Legislature convened on Jan. 11. It will continue until March 11, and then it will take a two week recess and reconvene on March 20 to consider any vetoes or last minute issues.

The governor has proposed a budget that cuts $127 million � or about 10 percent � from the state's general fund.

Virtually every corner of state government would be affected,  including state aid to K-12 education, higher education and Medicaid providers. Education and social services take about 85 percent of the general fund.

Daugaard said his proposal would wipe away a structural deficit in one year, paving the way for future growth and spending increases once the economy and state revenues recover. His cuts go far deeper than those proposed in December by former Gov. Mike Rounds, whose budget proposal used reserve money to buffer programs and resulted in only 5 percent cuts for K-12 education and Medicaid.

�As the governor said � five out of the last eight years, we've spent more money than we've taken in. It's fair for me to talk about that as a Republican because I talked about it as a Democrat, also,�Nygaard said. �We've got new leadership in Pierre and the governor is trying to balance it (the budget) right now.

�But with the rest (of the budget), we're cutting anything and everything that creates excess in government in those other areas,� he said. �It's not a good thing if it cuts necessary services, such as higher education. It is a good thing if it indicates we have some inefficiencies in government.�

Both Mike Keller, dean of the business school at USD, and James Abbott, university president, noted that the number of full-time positions employed by the Board of Regents has risen, while the employee numbers of the state Board of Education has decreased. Both men reminded the lawmakers that such a trend should be looked at as a positive thing for South Dakota; that the positions under the control of Board of Regents are aimed at economic development in the state, and are funded by outside dollars, not state tax revenue.

Abbott fears that most lawmakers aren't aware of those employees' positive impact on the state economy.

�And actually, in terms of money we get from the state, tuition and fees, we've actually cut positions,� Abbott said. �I don't get any sense that our legislators understand that, unless they are from this county.�

�I�ve certainly heard comments that the Regents are growing, but that is simply an incorrect statement. It is a misunderstanding of how things work,� he said.

�Deficit spending has been fueled by stimulus funds,� Nygaard said. �Our problem is that our federal government is now getting into trouble, too, and we're running out of stimulus funds and there aren't going to be stimulus funds. That's why there is an urgency.�

Nygaard said the governor has presented his budget to the Legislature, �and it now becomes the Legislature's budget.� He praised Daugaard for offering his plan directly to lawmakers without any pre-press conferences. �He went straight to the Legislature; I think that shows a new and increased respect for the legislative body from the executive branch. I'm encouraged by that.�

Democratic legislators have offered a plan that would balance the state's budget over three years instead of one, he said. There has also been a proposal offered that calls for making the necessary cuts to the state budget over a two-year period.

�We can look at both the governor's plan and the legislators can get together and look at some alternatives,� Nygaard said.

One member of the audience noted that approximately 100 of South Dakota's 156 public school districts have opted-out of the state property tax freeze to provide additional funding, on a local level, for education.

�Doesn't that tell you that the locals, who have to face people when they raise property taxes, have agreed that the state isn't adequately funding education, and now you want to cut it 10 percent?� he asked.

�I don't think the answer is to put it back more on property owners,� Jones said when describing how to adequately fund education. �I think that if we enact a sales tax increase � I do have a problem in raising property taxes when we can do something where everybody, including people from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, people who come to visit our state because they like it � I think they could help pay for things through a sales tax and it would be a better option than raising property taxes.�

Caitlin Collier of Vermillion, a former member of the Legislature, noted that many people in South Dakota struggle to make ends meet, and a sales tax would only add to their difficulties.

�I don�t think you understand the position of a large number of people in your district and in your state,� she said. �With education, we know that people can do better, and because they can do better, I don�t understand why we keep talking about nickel and dime-ing people to death on little things when we should be talking about an income tax. It is time for us to have an income tax.

�I would just like to see a little guts,� Collier said. �We can cut until there is nothing left, or we can step forward. Somebody in this state is making enough money that they could be paying income tax, and I�d sure like to see somebody on either party�s side have the guts to come forward and start working on something realistic.�

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