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Week One Recap

The first week of session has come to its conclusion. The initial week is its own strange animal, unlike any other week of the legislature. It is a time for gathering information; the Governor delivers the State of the State, the State of the Judiciary comes from the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court (Chief Justice Steven R. Jensen), and the State of the Tribes is brought to us by a Tribal Chairman, this year Tribal Chairman Peter Lengkeek of Crow Creek.

A few committee briefings also took place this week. Already so early in a session, there are some items for concern.

In Senate Education, we heard from Superintendent Culver from the Avon School District and the Rapid City Area School Director of Business and Support Services, Coy Sasse expressing the need from the legislature for support for increased funding as South Dakota continues to lose teachers to other professions or to teach out of state, and lose students to homeschool and private school options.

Many items should be addressed regarding the education system in South Dakota and how it is funded. What is unacceptable is the rhetoric that our school funding system is "complex" and that the formula implemented must be the equation accepted in perpetuity.

If an overhaul of the education funding system sounds like an oversimplification, it's because sometimes things should be simple. How the citizens of South Dakota are taxed for government-run schools and how those funds are utilized should be on that list.

In the interest of offering ideas as well as concerns, here are a few thoughts.

One idea that has come up in the past addresses the number of school districts in our state. In South Dakota, we have 168 school districts. For comparison, consider that Wyoming has 49 and Nebraska has 244, putting South Dakota squarely in the middle of a couple of our neighbors.

There are many ways to look at combining school districts for financial and educational benefits.

In this context, I am referring to combining the administrative components of school districts and not the combination or elimination of schools. The median salary for a superintendent in South Dakota is $147,392. In a rough estimation, reducing the number of superintendents of school districts from 168 to 49 saves approximately $17 million a year that could be otherwise allocated. That is only a fraction of the approximate cost savings. Not addressed are additional amounts reduced for other administrative costs, physical building costs for space, utilities, and upkeep. The main complaints regarding school district consolidation involve athletic team concerns and closing schools. Coming from Rapid City, I question this logic. Each school within the Rapid City Area School District has been able to maintain an individual athletic identity, and consolidation of administration shouldn't automatically indicate the closure of schools. Reducing administrative costs could save rural schools critical to the quality of life in our widespread communities throughout our state. It is easier now than ever for administrative oversight beyond city limits; with the increased ability to travel and utilization of online technology for supervision and meetings, it is possible to stay connected in a large state. Guidelines for communication could be implemented to ensure schools, staff, and parents remain connected to their district administrators.

There are inherent challenges with what might be considered too many school districts, just as there are challenges with what might be too few. Regardless, a willingness to look for innovative problem-solving is what the citizens of South Dakota want and deserve.

Just because a government-run program like public schools is an enormous and endlessly hungry monster devouring our tax dollars for subpar results doesn't mean we should continue to feed it mindlessly. Our students, our quality teachers, and our taxpayers should receive more than that from their legislators, and the future of South Dakota depends on it.

In Senate Transportation, we heard from the Department of Revenue. There are very hardworking individuals at the DOR, and they are tasked with a difficult assignment- to support state government by collecting state taxes required by law. Frequently, DOR can be viewed as the enemy, but the reality is they are only the vessel for tax collection of what your legislators implement. If legislators stopped approving increased taxes, DOR wouldn't be bound to collect them. Instead, we get stuck in a cyclical argument where DOR testifies against bills that lower taxes because they understand how the tax burden supports the systems in place. We need to have transparent conversations that address overspending, unnecessary programs, and streamlining processes rather than following the same pattern of approach year after year. We check the boxes talking about tax reform every year, but the burden on South Dakota taxpayers never really sees any benefit. It is tiresome stepping into committee hearings and interim studies to hear nothing can be accomplished from the old guard. This week in Senate Transportation, our committee heard from the Department of Revenue, Motor Vehicles Division. We discussed a supply issue with title paper from November until a couple of days ago. Motor Vehicles could not receive replacement stock to print paper titles until recently (adequate supplies and staff are an issue across all sectors in the United States right now), leading to a backlog of unprinted titles in the state of South Dakota. There was discussion of moving to a completely online titling system which makes me nervous from the perspective of the value of a hard copy, watermarked title kept in a personal safe. We also discussed the revenue received from the Excise Tax (up 5.7% from FY 2021 to FY 2022), a new license plate design soon to be rolled out, income to counties from the Wheel Tax (to the tune of $19,342,101), and the need to update the SDCARS system with a price tag of $25 million.

There were also many emails this week regarding the Summit Solutions carbon pipeline and an opposing group called Landowners for Eminent Domain Reform regarding the construction of a $4.5 billion liquid carbon dioxide pipeline. The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday at the request of affected landowners to move an April-May evidentiary hearing to September. This change will give all concerned parties more time to voice their opinions and weigh the potential risks and benefits.

Somewhat unusually, we did take up one heavy-hitting bill on the Senate floor before gaveling out on Friday, SB 41, to establish a program for housing infrastructure loans and grants, make an appropriation therefor, and to declare an emergency (which means funds are allocated as soon as the bill is signed by the Governor rather than waiting until July 1). This bill was a not-so-quick-fix to legislation passed last year for a $200 million housing program that should have been launched in 2022. Unfortunately, inner political power struggles led to these funds being delayed. This bill passed the Senate Friday, January 13, and will be on its way to the House and, hopefully, the Governor. Assuming any further concerns have been resolved and funding will soon be dispersed- $100 million in state dollars to provide a low-interest revolving loan fund to help builders with housing infrastructure costs, $50 million of state money, and $50 million in federal stimulus only used to provide grants.

And there you have it! Week one from my perspective and committee assignments. Lots more to come!

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