By Rep. Ray Ring
Legislative activity picked up a bit in the second week as we started hearing testimony and voting on bills in committee and on the House floor. So far, we have mostly dealt with resolutions and minor changes, eliminating obsolete laws that are no longer relevant or clarifying questions of interpretation that have come up since last year. A somewhat controversial disagreement between the House and the Senate did come up this week – more about that below. Things should get more interesting next week.
In last week’s column, I mentioned that Gov. Daugaard’s State of the State speech ignored some matters that I think deserve more attention. I mentioned Medicaid expansion; more about that in a later column. This week I want to say more about education.
The Rapid City Journal recently ran a story pointing out that “South Dakota once again ranks last in teacher pay.” Our $39,580 per year is 70 percent of the national average of $56,383 per year. Of surrounding states, North Dakota comes closest to South Dakota, paying its teachers an average of almost $8,000 more. Nebraska outdoes us by more than $9,000, Iowa by almost $12,000, Minnesota by nearly $17,000.
The governor’s spokesman responded that South Dakota “has the lowest cost of living.” Let’s look at the data. US Census Bureau data do indeed show that South Dakota’s cost of living is the lowest in the nation, at about 83 percent of the national average. That means that after we adjust for living costs, our teachers are still paid about 85 percent of the US average. Because surrounding states’ living costs are only slightly higher than South Dakota’s, cost adjustments don’t make a lot of difference for comparing our state to surrounding states. (Wyoming is the one exception, and I expect North Dakota’s costs to grow because of oil and gas drilling there.)
For example, without cost adjustments, Nebraska’s average teacher salaries are about 24 percent above South Dakota’s; with cost adjustments, Nebraska still outdoes us by about 22 percent. Minnesota bests South Dakota by 42 percent without cost of living adjustments, 39 percent with cost of living adjustments. No wonder superintendents testifying before this summer’s Interim Education Funding Formula Study Committee cited so many problems finding teachers.
At the request of the Interim Education Funding Formula Study Committee, a group of State Representatives and Senators introduced House Concurrent Resolution 1002, “recognizing the teacher shortage in this state and the difficulties school districts in South Dakota face in attracting and retaining qualified teachers.” The House passed this resolution 49 to 18, with Republicans casting all the “nay” votes but one.
To the surprise of many, the Senate defeated this resolution, 15 to 19, with Republicans casting all “nays.” How can anyone deny the difficulties of hiring and keeping good teachers when surrounding states pay our teachers 20-40 percent more, even after we adjust for costs of living?
Defenders of the way we pay teachers also point to South Dakota’s low taxes. My very rough estimate is that sales, residential property, and personal income taxes in Iowa are about $2,000 higher than in South Dakota. That narrows the after-tax gap to about $10,000 – still worth moving a few miles. The Iowa tax gap is the largest between South Dakota and surrounding states.
The Education Funding Formula Study Committee also recommended that state aid rise by 3.8 percent this year in order to bring the per student allocation back to where it was in 2008. The governor’s budget recommends only a 3 percent increase. At some point state government policy makers should take their heads out of the sand and do what our teachers and our children deserve.
I definitely need to know your views on these and other issues. Please contact me at Rep.Ring@state.sd.us or (605) 675-9379. Cracker barrels are scheduled for Feb. 1 and March 1 at 10 a.m. in the Vermillion City Hall, Feb. 15 at 10 a.m. in the Irene Community Center, and Feb. 15 at 1:30 p.m. in Viborg. Please come to share your views.