- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s proposed half-cent sales tax increase to help boost South Dakota’s lowest-in-the-nation pay for teachers is all but law after passing through the state Senate on Tuesday.

It would be the first permanent increase to the state’s sales tax rate of 4 cents per dollar in nearly half a century. The Republican-held chamber voted 25-10 for the plan, surpassing the required two-thirds margin necessary to send the proposal for the governor’s signature.

Daugaard said he is “elated” with the bill’s passage, adding that it will help South Dakota compete for quality teachers to educate the state’s students.

Momentum has been building to raise South Dakota’s teacher pay, which a state task force determined is the lowest of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Advocates argued the state needs an ongoing source to pay for increasing teacher salaries and getting South Dakota out of last place.

“We can make history today, a history that we can all be proud of,” said Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, a Democrat. “I implore us to be on the right side of history for a change.”

The increase would raise about $107 million in the upcoming budget year, most of which would be put toward helping raise the state’s target average teacher salary to $48,500 per year.

About $36.5 million of the increase also would go to property tax relief, and about $3.2 million would go toward salaries at technical schools.

Opponents argued the tax increase should be limited and unsuccessfully pitched smaller alternatives in the Senate. They also said existing state funds should be prioritized to find money for education.

“We keep hearing today that you can’t find the money,” Republican Sen. Bill Van Gerpen said. “The money’s there.”

The bill faced a difficult path through the GOP-dominated Legislature, but it received support from both parties. The House hit the exact margin to approve the plan last week after the bill initially failed by a single vote.

Advocates celebrated the measure’s success. Text messages and Facebook posts started pouring in from teachers across the state after the vote, said Mary McCorkle, president of the South Dakota Education Association, a professional organization with more than 5,000 members.

“This is a historic day for our students and our schools in South Dakota,” she said.

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