South Dakotans Talking allows citizens to voice views on budget

Last month, local officials and ordinary citizens had an opportunity to make their voices heard regarding the state budget when Valiant Vineyards in Vermillion was the site of South Dakotans Talking.

The program allows citizens to voice their opinions on budget-related concerns through a series of traveling meetings, with final information to be tallied and presented to the legislators at next year's session.

City officials who attended the Nov. 16 session found the experience rewarding.

"I thought it was a good idea, and I hope there will be more of that," said Vermillion Mayor Jack Powell.

"It was educational in terms of what they brought to the table for us to look at – the budget documents, the presentation that was made," said City Manager John Prescott. "I think it was a good program to give an overview of the budget process and how it comes about. …

"I think it was a good beginning point for some discussions," he said.

Using electronic 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 state's budget.

Powell and Prescott both discussed revenue and taxation.

"With respect to taxation, we spent a bit of time talking about the tax revenue that's lost due to online sales and that sort of thing, which is not a state of South Dakota issue, but if the company has a presence in the state they have to collect sales tax," Powell said.

Prescott said sales tax exemptions also were a topic of discussion.

"We talked about how it was a good idea to look at, review (and) explore those exemptions that were there, which I think to some degree the Legislature might have done this summer," he said.

Powell added that there was "just a mention of an income tax, but I don't think anyone realistically thought that was going to happen."

Among those present who discussed education issues was Benno Wymar, former professor at the University of South Dakota's School of Business.

In an e-mail, Wymar said his group discussed expenses relating to higher education.

"Our conclusions were that there are too many state colleges in (South Dakota), given the limited resources available in the state," he wrote. "We suggested attaching Black Hills State to the S.D. School of Mines, and Dakota State to either USD or SDSU."

Wymar's group also suggested that incoming higher ed students could reduce their personal expenses by taking college-level courses while still in high school, an option that is available in Vermillion.

Joy Smolnisky, director of the South Dakota Budget and Policy Project, stated at the meeting that she hoped the event would encourage people to take more of an active role in public policy.

"Our encouragement to you is, this is your government, (these are) your services, they are your taxes, so get involved," she said at the meeting. "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."

South Dakotans Talking has been taken throughout the state since Oct. 14, and will continue to gather information until Dec. 15.

The program 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.

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