Originally published in the Rapid City Journal, Wednesday, January 19, 2022
I've always been one to look for creative ways to make ends meet and one of these opportunities around fifteen years ago was performing singing Valentines. I was hired to sing to lovebirds all over Rapid City- in office buildings, banks, the Department of Social Services, even north of town- at a sale barn. I climbed into the auctioneer's booth in my high heels (not easy, but not impossible). The friendliest folks you could ever meet greeted me. I sang my heart out, the ranchers clapped and cheered, and the ladies gathered around me, giggling and giving rib-crushing hugs. This is South Dakota.
Those following the opinion articles in the Rapid City Journal have heard about House Bill 1039 (formerly Draft Bill 50) that Representative Trish Ladner and I have been working on- the Grassland Tax Relief Bill.
When the Department of Revenue implemented the productivity tax system in 2008, it was done with the admission that it wasn't perfect. There was recognition the new system would need to be tweaked and adjusted. Those attempts were notably made in 2010, again in 2016, and most recently with artificial intelligence assessments. Unfortunately, this AI has resulted in the most inaccurate and inequitable system yet.
Current Department of Revenue staff inherited a broken system. They have been trying to address it with limited resources; however, our ranchers literally cannot afford to wait for another solution. If any other entity were looking at property tax increases of 60%-200%, there would be panic in the streets. Ranchers don't have the luxury of raising their prices to meet the demand of new taxation- the price they can sell their cattle for is entirely out of their control. It's vital to remember that ranchers are exempt from receiving government subsidies if they have a bad year with their livestock, and there are many bad years with our weather. The argument that they "could" start cropping is thin in a semi-arid climate, many without irrigation, and most at high elevations. Some of these areas assessed as croplands could never be conceivably or practically farmed.
South Dakota is rural, small-town America. Most ranch families have been here for over one hundred years- before South Dakota was a state. They homesteaded here. There are remnants of dugouts on some of these properties. Some ranchers have graves for deceased child family members from the 1800s, a tribute to ancestors but a stark reminder that it wasn't always so easy to live here. The ranchers were in South Dakota when no one wanted this land, and they stayed when people left in droves in the 1930s. South Dakota is beautiful, and modern conveniences make it a very appealing place to live now. Ranchers shouldn't be pushed aside, taxed off their land simply because our state has become attractive. Unfair taxation resulting in taking land from generational owners for development or sale to precision ag operations (some headquartered outside of the United States) is not only grossly unfair, but it's also negligent. With the supply shortages we've been seeing, it's a good reminder that we are geographically far away from supply chains. We need to support producing food in our state that we can utilize locally. The small business on main street is not more essential than the small ranch business that protects our domestic food security. South Dakota needs to support a strong and viable agriculture economy, which includes ranchers. Taxes should only be collected to fund legitimate government functions. Elected officials say they support a lower tax burden, but we continually leave ranchers out of that equation.
Department of Revenue staff come and go. Legislators come and go. The generational ranchers have been here through it all: broken systems, broken promises, and broken dreams. Ronald Reagan said. "Government does not tax to get the money it needs; government always finds a need for the money it gets." He also said, "You can't be for big government, big taxes, and big bureaucracy and still be for the little guy." I was born and raised in South Dakota, and I still believe in the little guy. House Bill 1039 is one small avenue that provides ranchers an additional, efficient way to categorize their land as non-cropland. This bill will also save assessors, the Department of Revenue, and Directors of Equalization time and alleviate their workload and lack of adequate staff. House Bill 1039 will be heard in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee January 20th, step one in potentially the multi-step bill process. You can be a city kid and still believe in small-town South Dakota.
If you were wondering, the song I performed on Valentine's Day in 2007 was technically at a sheep auction. The ranch wife hired me to sing "their song" to her husband, You Were Always on My Mind. You (ewe?) can't make this stuff up, and you have to love South Dakota!