Valiant Vineyards was crowded Wednesday with local officials and residents talking about budget-related concerns for the state.
They met as part of South Dakotans Talking, a program that allows citizens to voice their concerns about the state budget, with final information to be tallied and presented to the legislators at next year's session.
"It's an attempt to do analysis and fiscal policy education from an objective point of view," said Joy Smolnisky, director of the South Dakota Budget and Policy Project. "Our mission is to promote responsible and equitable fiscal policy through research and education. …
"We're here to talk as South Dakotans about what we want to know and understand about the budget process, and what our thoughts are about fiscal policy," she said.
The program has been taken throughout the state since Oct. 14, and will continue to gather information until Dec. 15.
It was brought to Vermillion through the Extension Service, the Bush Foundation and the Northwest Area Foundation, with local support from the Vermillion Area Chamber & Development Company's Legislative Affairs Committee and the W.O. Farber Center's Civic Leadership Program.
"This is one of the goals that we have at the Chamber & Development Company – bringing conversations like this to the table that help (citizens) be active in public policy," said Steve Howe, the Chamber's executive director.
Using electronic voting devices, the approximately 30 attendees of the meeting were divided into groups that discussed such topics as state revenue, Medicaid and education as they relate to the budget.
"What your goal is here is to come up with some ideas – and in particular, one lead idea – that you would like to share with us when I call time at the end of your small-group session," explained Kari Fruechte, community development specialist for the South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service.
The information gathered at Wednesday's meeting will then be compared to that which was taken from other meetings.
"Each small group will end up finding areas of consensus," Smolnisky said. "If they don't, that's OK. That tells us something, too. But, if they do find areas of consensus on the topic, we record those, and we combine that data and compare it with the consensus recommendations that come out of small groups from around the state."
Smolnisky said there is no agenda behind the information-gathering.
"What we're interested in is engaging the public so they can understand the process, how they get involved, begin doing consensus-building discussions at the community level, and then providing that feedback to their legislators," she said. "At the national level in many states we see so much animosity in the way people are communicating about these really important decisions.
"So we really want to facilitate a model of rational public discourse that is non-partisan and can really deal with what are the priorities in South Dakota, and what choices should we consider," she said.
Above all, Smolnisky said she hoped the meetings encourage people across the state to get involved.
"Our encouragement to you is, this is your government, (these are) your services, they are your taxes, so get involved," she said. "Figure out what your priorities are, what you're willing to pay for, what you're not willing to pay for, and what you want to spend it on. And then let your legislators know."
Check future editions of the Plain Talk for further discussion of the local South Dakotans Talking meeting.