Education, Medicaid among topics at Cracker Barrel

District 17 Reps. Nancy Rasmussen (at left), and Ray Ring, and Sen. Tom Jones (at right) answer questions during Saturday’s legislative Cracker Barrel meeting in Vermillion. The session was moderated by Professor Betty Smith, pictured left of Jones.  (Photo by David Lias)

District 17 Reps. Nancy Rasmussen (at left), and Ray Ring, and Sen. Tom Jones (at right) answer questions during Saturday’s legislative Cracker Barrel meeting in Vermillion. The session was moderated by Professor Betty Smith, pictured left of Jones.
(Photo by David Lias)

By David Lias

District 17 Rep. Ray Ring (D-Vermillion) is hopeful that the current session of the South Dakota Legislature will be able to increase education funding for school districts by 3.8 percent instead of the 3 percent suggested by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

“That’s probably the most important bill, in my mind, that we’ve have in the Education Committee,” Ring said during a legislative Cracker Barrel meeting, held Saturday morning at Vermillion City Hall.

Citizens packed the building’s meeting chamber to hear Ring, and District 17’s two other legislators, Rep. Nancy Rasmussen (R-Hurley), and Sen. Tom Jones (D-Viborg) describe issues that are currently before state lawmakers.

“You may recall that there was an interim study committee this summer that looked at education funding, and one of their resolutions was that we should raise education funding to the point where the per student allocation was to the point before the cutbacks in 2011,” Ring said.

Ring said the Education Committee has approved legislation calling for a 3.8 percent education funding increase. The Appropriations Committee will now hear that bill.

Professor Betty Smith, serving as moderator of the event, asked the three legislators to share what they see as the most important issues facing District 17.

“Common Core is a very big issue, and one that was pretty much 50-50 when a resolution was passed,” Rasmussen said. “When you have an issue that is pretty close to 50-50, there’s going to be a lot of dialogue about that.”

Common Core arrived during the first term of President Barack Obama, whose administration provided money to help states implement it. South Dakota’s state board agreed to adopt Common Core in November 2010 after public notice and a public hearing.

It is being challenged by a broad group of fundamentally conservative Republican legislators, activists and various parents and grandparents with a variety of complaints.

Their mission is to stop Common Core’s further use, prohibit all national standards in South Dakota in the future and return to state-developed standards and testing.

Rasmussen said she supports giving more funding to education. She added the state Department of Social Services is coming forward with many request.

“I think that we’ve had five or six bills come forth about abuse, which is also a very important subject,” she said.

“Education funding and the expansion of Medicaid are the two that are on the top of my list,” said Ring. “Education funding and teacher salaries – even if you adjust for inflation, we’re still 15 percent below the national average, we’re still much more than that when compared to surrounding states.

“It’s going to become more and more difficult to attract good teachers or to attract any teachers to South Dakota if we don’t do something and do something soon,” he said.

Ring said it appears that Gov. Dennis Daugaard is shifting his views on Medicaid expansion.

“He seems to be maybe finally recognizing that there is a moral issue here, and there may be a political issue here,” he said, “and so I think we might get something. We aren’t going to get as much as we’d like to get. As far as I’m concerned, when the government is paying for all of it, down to 90 percent of it, there’s no reason not to take the full expansion.”

Jones, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said South Dakotans take pride in being frugal with spending. “We’re pretty close to the vest on a lot of things,” he said.

He said constituents should be proud that lawmakers don’t spend more revenue than is taken in, but he reminded them that South Dakota doesn’t balance its budget.

“There is a difference between a balanced budget and an excess of your taxpayers’ money,” Jones said.

State lawmakers are working with $134 million extra this year, he said, thanks to the unclaimed property funds. “With that kind of money … we have a lot that is going to spent this year in our governor’s budget. What we’re also finding is he is recommending, and I think it is a super idea and a good business tactic – he’s taking a lot of that money and he is spending on paying off some bonds, doing some payments of one-time expenses, and using that money to pay ongoing expenses for the following years.

“When you do that, then those following years, because you’ve already paid those bonds, for example, you’re freeing those monies up for the next year and the next year and the next year. It was a very tactical thing to do,” Jones said.

The VFW Auxiliary, Clay County Democrats, Clay County Republicans, and the VCDC Legislative Affairs Committee sponsored Saturday’s meeting. A second Cracker Barrel meeting is scheduled at city hall beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 1.

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