- Associated Press - Sunday, March 2, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - State tax revenues have faltered a bit lately, and legislative leaders said that might make it difficult to boost education funding beyond what the governor proposed.

Representatives of school boards, administrators and teachers have repeatedly said they appreciate Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s proposal to increase state aid to school districts by 3 percent next year, nearly double the inflationary increase required by law. However, they have asked the Legislature for a 3.8 percent increase to restore per-student spending to where it was before 2011 budget cuts.

The 3.8 percent boost, proposed by a legislative study panel that met last summer, would cost the state $5.3 million more than the governor has recommended. The House Appropriations Committee two weeks ago rejected a bill that would have provided a 3.8 percent increase, but education groups have not abandoned efforts to get that additional money.

“I want to make sure everybody is clear that is our goal and we’ll keep lobbying for that,” said Wade Pogany of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “We still think we have a case.”

Education officials argue that school aid should be restored to its level before the budget cuts because school districts have had to cut teachers and programs in the past few years. South Dakota has the nation’s lowest average teacher pay, and districts are having a hard time hiring and keeping teachers, they said.

Pogany said the issue won’t be decided until lawmakers pass next year’s state budget near the end of the legislative session’s main run on March 14.

“It won’t be done until the end,” he said.

But Republican legislative leaders said recent state tax collections have fallen short of projections, and that could hamper efforts to give school districts more money than Daugaard has proposed.

House Speaker Brian Gosch said lawmakers are worried more about funding the governor’s recommended budget than about adding spending.

“It’s kind of putting the cart in front of the horse to talk about how you’re going to spend extra,” the Rapid City Republican said.

Daugaard said tax collections so far are fairly close to projections, but the key is what revenue the state will collect in the future. After hearing from economists in the next week, the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee will decide how much revenue the state can expect to receive in the current budget year and the next budget year, which starts July 1.

However, Daugaard noted that he made some unusual budget moves just to be able to recommend a 3 percent boost in state aid, rather than the 1.6 percent inflationary increase required by law. The governor’s proposed budget would use an unexpected windfall in one-time revenue to pay off some state debts and obligations, freeing up ongoing revenue for education and other priorities.

House Minority Leader Bernie Hunhoff said he hopes the Legislature will fund schools as a priority, but he expects next year’s budget will not repair all the damage caused by the 2011 cuts.

“We’re not going to be able to fully fix the problem we caused with education, with our schools,” the Democrat from Yankton said. “It’s probably not going to be where we want it to be as far as rebuilding school budgets.”

If the Legislature cannot fix schools budget problems this year, it should at least adopt a long-range plan to help them in the future, Hunhoff said.

Daugaard’s proposed budget would set spending per student from state and local funds at $4,764 next year. Schools want it raised to $4,805, the level in place before the 2011 budget cuts.

Pogany said spending in most state programs has been restored to what was being spent before the 2011 budget cuts, so schools should get the same treatment.

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