Democratic leaders said they'll work in the 2012 legislature to develop a long-range plan for school funding.
"The governor's proposed budget sounds OK if your memory only goes back the last nine months," said Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, the House Minority Leader. "But anyone who knows the history of the last decade understands that we've dug a very deep hole for our schools, and the proposed increases don't even begin to fill the needs."
Hunhoff said last year's budget was an extreme over-reaction to the state's funding issues. "It was a Tea Party response to a South Dakota problem that is very different than the rest of the country," he explained. "We haven't had the horrible downturns of most other states. We don't have a housing crisis or bank failures, or even high unemployment today. Last year's budget created more problems than it solved. While the 2013 proposal stops the bleeding — it doesn't really begin the healing."
Hunhoff said continued under-funding by the legislature will force school districts to raise property taxes. "Home-owners, farmers and businesses already pay high property taxes, so I don't see that as a viable option," he said. "Another option is a decrease in the quality of education, and hopefully we don't have any advocates for that path."
Sen. Jason Frerichs, the Senate Minority Leader, said Democrats can find common ground with many of the governor's budget proposals — especially the effort to help state workers. "We have folks doing really tough jobs — guarding prisoners, driving snow plows — who haven't had a cost of living increase in three years. This is long overdue, and I'm glad it won't be a partisan fight."
Frerichs said efforts to train teachers and administrators on the Common Care Standards, which are replacing the failed No Child Left Behind efforts, are also important. And he said one-time expenditures to cover flooding costs and the pine beetle infestations are also important.
"But that's just managing for yesterday's problems. We in the legislature should be looking ahead to see how we can set priorities that help us plan and build for tomorrow," said Frerichs. "That's our goal as Democrats — to reach out to our Republican colleagues and work to rewrite a school funding formula, reform Medicaid, curb poverty and create better jobs."
Rep. Mitch Fargen, the Assistant Minority Leader, said the school formula needs to be at the top of the agenda. "As Democrats, we have good ideas. We welcome ideas and suggestions from the other side of the aisle. Hopefully we can all agree that the state is failing to fund the schools properly. Even if the governor's budget proposal passes, we'll still be 10% below per student funding of 4 years ago — at a time when the school's expenses for energy and health care are rising like everyone else's, and as we pay our teachers the lowest in the nation. The budget we heard today doesn't address that problem. It continues the status quo."
Sen. Billie Sutton, the Senate Democrats' appropriations spokesman, said his committee will look forward to analyzing the proposal. "I'm concerned about the morale of our state workers after three years of no pay increases. Hopefully we can begin to mend that, because we've lost a lot of good people in state government and as the economy improves we will lose still more."
Sutton said Democrats will make every effort to be sure that all citizens of South Dakota have an opportunity to weigh in on the budget, and that the legislature's budget be printed at least 24 hours before it goes to a final vote. "We hope there'll be greater opportunities for the public to be heard on budget amendments, and even during the hearing process as we listen to the bureaucrats make their pitches."