- Associated Press - Friday, March 14, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The South Dakota Legislature passed a $4.3 billion spending plan Friday that gives extra state money to teachers, the state’s four technical institutes and some nursing homes and other health care facilities that serve low-income people.

The Senate voted unanimously to approve the budget put together earlier in the day by the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee. The House followed with a 59-10 vote to pass the budget as the main run of this year’s legislative session came to an end.

Lawmakers said the budget is the best they’ve been able to pass since deep budget cuts were made four years ago.

“This is a budget that I believe is responsible and will continue to serve our citizens and our state for the coming year and position our state for the future,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Deb Peters, R-Hartford.

Members of the Democratic minority said the budget begins to help school districts recover from the 2011 budget cuts and recognizes the need to boost teachers’ salaries, but they said they wish the Legislature could do more to help schools and the facilities that provide health services to the poor.

“I consider this budget as just a start,” said House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton.

Democrats in both chambers tried to amend the budget in a last-ditch attempt to expand the state’s Medicaid program to provide medical care to an additional 48,000 people. But those proposals died on party-line votes as Republicans said they will continue to seek federal permission to expand the program to cover fewer people than envisioned by the federal health care overhaul.

In hearings over two days, the Appropriations Committee added $3.3 million to Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s proposed budget for the year that begins July 1. The extra spending was possible because spending in the Medicaid program is expected to be lower than had been projected earlier.

The budget will spend about $1.7 billion in federal funds and $1.2 billion in other dedicated money such as highway funding. The Legislature focuses mostly on the $1.4 billion portion of the budget financed with general state taxes.

Daugaard, who worked with the Legislature to cut spending by about 10 percent in many programs in 2011, said he’s pleased with the budget because it’s balanced but also the most generous in his four years as governor.

“I feel pretty good about it,” the Republican governor said. “We’ve got a lot accomplished with the spending we’ve made - really quite a lot,”

The committee’s budget would give school districts an extra $2.2 million in the budget year beginning July 1, and the schools would be required to use the extra $16.72 per student to give teachers a pay raise. That could amount to about $230 a year for each of the state’s approximately 10,000 teachers, lawmakers said.

Lawmakers said they want to give school districts extra money because South Dakota’s lowest-in-the-nation average teachers’ salary makes it difficult for some schools to hire and keep teachers. Sen. Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall, said teachers not only educate students but help them deal with social and family problems.

“I know how important it is, the role of teacher in South Dakota,” Van Gerpen said.

Daugaard’s proposed budget increased state aid to school districts by 3 percent next year, nearly double the inflationary increase required by law. But school districts had asked the Legislature for a 3.8 percent increase to restore per-student funding to where it was before 2011 budget cuts.

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