Lawmakers reflect on legislative session
By Jason Ferguson
Published: Thursday, March 20th, 2014
“This session went by faster than normal for me,” Rep. Mike Verchio said. “The somewhat lighter bill load made it much easier to study and research bills.”
The final days of the session saw legislators spending leftover funds in the budget on a variety of projects, including $500,000 to The Ellsworth Air Force Base authority, whose members work to preserve the future of the base, and $464,000 for a shale research program at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.
Nearly $2 million will be spent on the fight against mountain pine beetles in the Black Hills, including $350,000 for work in Custer State Park and another $1.6 million to be spent on other lands.
“It was a good session. We did not have monumental problems to address, but considered and debated a wide array of issues and selected the ones that needed the most attention and acted upon them,” Sen. Bruce Rampelberg said. “Each issue had its pros and cons and I learned a lot as different presentations were made. In the main, I think the decisions made represented the people well.”
Verchio said his biggest disappointment was that the legislature did not fund trade schools and K-12 education as fully as it could have. He said the 3 percent bump to education and medical providers was not enough to get them back to pre-cut levels and other bills to give them more money did not pass.
“Some of the spenders that are essentially earmarked are, to me, a total waste of revenue until we can address education, infrastructure, public safety and taking care of those who truly can’t take care of themselves,” he said.
Rampelberg said the 3 percent bump, while better than nothing, still leaves the state with uncompetitive salary levels in schools.
“In my opinion, our state’s revenue growth will not be sufficient to significantly impact teacher compensation levels due to increased expenses beyond our control, like electricity, food, health care, gasoline, insurance, etc.,” he said. “This will require leadership from school boards and administrators because the legislature is unlikely to pass a tax increase.”
Rampelberg said the 2014 budget was relatively easy to balance due to the unexpected “unclaimed property” discovered in November, which provided an increase for schools and health providers and helped pick up other expenses, as well. The 2015 budget, however, is another matter, he said. Revenue projects may be a tad aggressive, he said, but by the time a basic increase in expenses are made, the state is at a break-even position.
“Let’s hope for a good year for tourism and ag,” he said.
Verchio said his concern about the budget is that the executive branch has “way too much sway” in the proposed budget, which it works on year around, and then the legislature is left “to fight for changes in just 40 days or less.”
Rep. Lance Russell said the budget troubles him because education funding could have easily been restored to the level that existed prior to the 2011 cut. Instead, the governor’s proposal to spend $30 million on Build South Dakota over the next three years, with all the money being appropriated this year, made restoring the pre-cut funding for education very difficult, he said.
He also said the budget bill should have a series of deadlines to benchmarks that must be achieved throughout the session, such as every other bill must be passed out of the house of origin by a little over halfway through the session.
“I believe our budgeting process needs to be reformed,” he said. “The people of South Dakota should have much more information and ability to participate in the budgetary process.”
Rampelberg mentioned a couple disappointments in terms of failed bills, including the bill dealing with defining ag property and its taxation. The bill passed out of the House, but failed in the Senate Ag Committee.
“Unfortunately, it was not well vetted with county commissioners or auditors from around the state,” he said. “A number of issues were identified that required a change and we just ran out of town.”
The other bill is one desired by people in Fall River and Pennington counties, which would have permitted the establishment of a library district. Rampelberg said it would have been patterned after water and fire districts. The bill made it out of the Local Government Committee but was killed on the Senate floor.
Russell said he would have liked to have seen legislation adjusting the Department of Agriculture’s regulation of raw milk enacted, and still holds out hope the department will make serious efforts to simplify the rules.
“Protecting both the public and protecting the farmers should be easy to achieve,” he said.
Very late in the session, a bill was passed to ban texting while driving. The bill makes texting and driving a secondary offense, which means law enforcement cannot pull someone over just for texting, much like the seat belt law. The fine is up to $100.
It appeared no texting bill would be passed, as the Senate and House both passed different versions of a texting ban and then continued to battle over which version of the bill to make law and how serious to make the offense. After much debate and a number of amendments, a bill was finally passed that Rampelberg said is a trade- off between those who want no more laws and those who are concerned about the safety of the people.
“I believe most people would like to stop this practice, but are unsure how to do it,” he said. “The issue will be back next year.”
Verchio was more blunt about the texting bill, calling it “unconstitutional.” The bill passed does not prevent local governments from passing their own texting bans.
“If you get a texting ticket in Pennington County, fight it,” he said. “You will win.”
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