Between the lines: It’s so easy to take advantage of us

It�s difficult to argue with this observation that Sen. John Thune makes in his weekly column that we received July 22:

He writes: �The state of South Dakota continues to provide an example for the federal government in the ways of fiscal responsibility. Governor Dennis Daugaard recently announced that the state ended the fiscal year on June 30th with a balanced budget, thanks in large part to the state agencies spending less than what was allocated and the hard decisions made in the last legislative session. Not only did South Dakota end the year with a balanced budget, but it was done without raising taxes on our individuals, families, or job creators in our state.�

It�s easy for us South Dakotans to count ourselves as �fortunate� compared to the citizens of so many other of our 50 states. Think of Wisconsin, for example. Or California, or Michigan.

The fact that Sen. Thune can so easily gloss over the struggles currently being faced by South Dakota citizens after the last legislative session makes us question some of his conclusions, and frankly, his mindset.

We suspect he is simply taking advantage a key trait that we South Dakotans share: We carry on. We find a way to get things done, no matter what.

So yes, as Sen. Thune proudly announces above, we did manage to do what Washington can�t � we balanced our budget.

We find this observation by the senator particularly troubling, however: � �it was done without raising taxes on our individuals, families, or job creators in our state.�

Hmmm.

People who reside in the Vermillion School District have, for years now, demonstrated that they care more about properly funding education than the state (and, I guess, Sen. Thune) does. The Vermillion School Board voted to opt out of the state property tax freeze so that valuable programs would not be victim to budget cuts. Voters approved that opt out in 2005 to the tune of $800,000 per year for a five-year period.

Naturally, it was hoped that at the end of that five-year period, the state Legislature and our governor would realize just how crucial education funding is to South Dakota. The opt out would end, and local taxpayers would no longer have to pay extra to try to keep up with funding shortfalls from Pierre.

Except that our current school board and administration, after doing all of the math, discovered that they had to continue the opt out for another five years. Vermillion school district residents realize the futility of it all, too. The action to continue the opt out wasn�t even referred to a public vote.

School district patrons knew they couldn�t count on the state. Especially when the governor and Legislature simply choose to ignore state law.

Historically, per-student funding tracked closely with the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, an inflationary measure built into South Dakota�s education funding formula. Annual increases in education funding from the state were limited to 3 percent, or the rate of inflation, whichever was less.

That is until Gov. Mike Rounds� last year in office, when he convinced the Legislature to simply ignore that guideline and provide no increase in education funding. During Gov. Daugaard�s first year in office, he aimed to cut education funding by 10 percent. The Legislature softened the blow a bit, finding some one-time money so that school district funding would be cut by 8.6 percent in per-student allocations in the 2012 state budget that puts education funding levels back to 2007 levels.

Vermillion is not alone in helping South Dakota balance its budget each year by paying extra in local property taxes for education. According to the South Dakota Department of Education, approximately 60 of the 152 school districts in the state have opted out of the general fund tax limitations prior to the 2010-11 school year. Many school districts are discussing an opt out either this year, 2011 taxes (pay in 2012) or for 2012 taxes (pay in 2013). 

Earlier this month, the Belle Fourche School District approved opting out of the state�s property tax cap. They will make up for cuts in state aid by charging local property owners an additional $550,000 a year for three years. This additional revenue comes on top of $275,000 in cuts this year and expected cuts of another quarter million next year.

I�m running out of space here, and all I�ve really talked about is opt outs. There are so many other ways, in just the realm of state education alone, that South Dakota balances its budget by finding someone to pony up the needed dough.

Vermillion property owners. USD students, who saw their tuition increase 6.9 percent for the 2011-2012 school year. School district and university staff and faculty, who must endure a continuing freeze of their wages.

Yes, a balanced budget is a good thing. So is honesty.

For Sen. Thune to write that South Dakota balanced its budget earlier this year without raising taxes on individuals and businesses in the state is simply not true.

Ironically, Sen. Thune made this observation about his home state as a preface to repeat his support for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

I could devote another column to trying to explain what a horrendous idea that is, so I won�t delve any deeper into that topic.

But think about this: if the only way South Dakota can balance its budget is to ignore state law so that it can slash education funding, how do you expect Congress to ever be able to operate within the confines of a balanced budget amendment?

You may read Sen. Thune�s column on the internet: http://thune.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/op-eds?ID=953b94a5-aa4c-4ce1-a1b6-96a2f19de199

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