By Travis Gulbrandson
The City Hall Council Chambers were filled almost to capacity Tuesday, Oct. 23, when area political candidates held a forum in which they discussed their views on a number of state-related issues.
District 17 candidates for the state Senate and House of Representatives were among those present.
One of the issues touched on was the surplus in the state treasury that followed cuts to education.
Former teacher Marion Sorlien, a Democrat running for the House, said that a 10 percent cut to education doesn't seem necessary when 11 percent of the state's budget is in reserves.
"It seems to me that (legislators) do know there's money there, and it's kind of a trick to put it into reserves, because now (they) get to dole it out one year at a time," she said. "That doesn't make sense to me. It seems like a power play. Although I don't know all the ins and outs of the budgeting, I think that needs to be stopped."
Democratic House candidate Ray Ring, an economist who taught at the University of South Dakota, said it's like "squirreling away this money" for a rainy day fund, but not spending it when the rainy day arrives.
"I've looked at some of these things over the years because of what I teach and the research that I do, and most people feel that 5 percent (in reserves) is probably adequate," Ring said. "It's probably even less than that for South Dakota, because we have a very stable tax structure."
Under the current system, the state ends up with one-time monies going into or coming out of the general fund, which "makes for very difficult budgeting," Ring said.
Senate candidate and current representative Tom Jones said that two years ago the legislators were told the state had a $127 million deficit, which made 10 percent across-the-board cuts a necessity.
"All of a sudden, this year we've got around an $87 million surplus," said Jones, a Democrat. "That tells me something about the budgeting that we did. This is the worst we've ever seen in the history of South Dakota, where we mis-budgeted that far. We overestimated our expenses and we underestimated our income by a tone of money."
Republican Senate candidate John Chicoine, of Parker, said it was a good thing the state had its "rainy day fund" because of the widespread flooding seen in 2011.
"When the floods came, we gave out some of that money to Pierre, Dakota Dunes and some of those places," Chicoine said. "We loaned that money to them. If we didn't have that money at that time, they'd have never gotten it."
He added that South Dakota is "one of the few states in the nation that is debt-free."
"The budget process is done by experts that work for the state – it isn't the governor all of a sudden saying, 'OK, we're going to do this,'" Chicoine said. "I read somewhere that they missed it at 1 percent this year. One percent isn't bad."
The candidates were also asked about whether the state handles environmentally-sensitive issues with proper balance.
A theme of vigilance was used repeatedly in their answers.
"We only get one shot with our environment," Sorlien said. "We only have this one earth that we're going to leave to future generations. While we need to develop resources, they aren't going to be worth anything if we don't have a really good place to live."
Ring agreed, saying, "I don't see any serious problems, but I am concerned. … I think state government tends to bend over backwards too much sometimes to accommodate business and might overlook or not have the skills to provide and enforce the necessary regulations."
Chicoine said a balance needs to be struck between business and the environment.
"Our state has to put in place standards permitting processes and probably if they can if they use the most modern technology that these businesses are going to have," he said. "They've got to have that available so it does help protect the environment."
He added that he thinks the state is doing this now, but needs to have its appeals process in order so concerned people can utilize it if they think it's necessary.
"That way, everybody knows where they're at," Chicoine said. "We've got an even playing field."
Jones said the public has an obligation to see that everything is done properly.
"We've got the pipeline coming through South Dakota, and it's going through Ogallala aquifer," he said. "That's a huge, huge water source for Americans, and we need to make sure we do due diligence … and don't have any problems in that area. It's very important to us."
In their closing statements, each candidate elaborated on their views of what the South Dakota Legislature should be.
"I think we need solutions to problems, and I really think Pierre should be a gigantic think-tank where people are sharing ideas," Chicoine said. "Then they can come up with solutions. Pierre does not have to be a battleground. It doesn't have to be like our national legislature. Everybody is so tired of that."
Ring agreed with this "think-tank" philosophy, but added, "I haven't seen much thinking in the legislature for the last several years. There's an awful lot of leading by the governor, and following by the legislature.
"We need more ideas up there, people who are willing to take a different stand, and at least some of those people will need to be from a different party than the one that's been running things for at least the last 34 years," he said.
Jones agreed that Republican dominance is a problem in state politics. Of the 35 state senators, only five are democrats, he said.
"I'd like to see some more parity, and that's one of the reasons I would like to switch from the House to the Senate," he said. "I think if we can double or even triple the numbers there, it'll be a better Senate, and I think there will be more discussions and more give-and-take, rather than one rule. I think that would be better for South Dakota."
Sorlien said she thought about problems that arise from one-party legislation following the debate on HB 1234, when the legislators recessed three times to go back into caucus.
"It made me think … the discussion on that bill wasn't taking place on the house floor," she said. "It was taking place in the Republican caucus. We are under-represented. There's no balance there.
"We didn't talk to educators about the bill, we didn't look at what's good for South Dakota, what's going to help students," she said. "We passed something that is part of a national agenda, and it doesn't have anything to do with South Dakota.
Republican House candidate Nancy Rasmussen was not present at the forum.