- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Editors: Please note that The Associated Press welcomes editorial contributions from members for the weekly Editorial Roundup. Three editorials are selected every week. Contributions can be made by email at [email protected]

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Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, June 14, 2015

Proposed pension changes positive move

By every measure, South Dakota has one of the best-run pension funds in the nation for our city, county, state and university and school district employees.

According to a report released in January by the South Dakota Retirement System, the trust fund is 100 percent funded after earning 18.9 percent returns in 2014, numbers that few other states are matching and should be the envy of those who administer Social Security.

In 2014, the fund had 79,505 members, including 24,562 who received a total of $425 million in benefits. Overall, the fund now has $10.6 billion earmarked for pensions benefits, according to the SDRS website.

Now, the SDRS is studying the possibility of tweaking the pension system that was established in 1974.

At a meeting last week in Pierre, fund managers proposed that the retirement age be changed from 65 to 67 years old in order to receive full benefits. For those in law enforcement, it would be raised from 55 to 57. The proposal also calls for the final compensation to be calculated on a five-year average, rather than the current three years.

The fund is financed by the employees, who contribute 6 percent of their pay, and their employers, who match that contribution.

The proposed changes would not affect any government employee now enrolled in the pension fund. The proposal, which is still under discussion, needs the approval of the fund’s Board of Trustees as well as the state Legislature. If all goes according to plan, however, lawmakers will consider a proposal at their next session in 2016.

It’s clearly a good idea to make these changes. Americans, on average, are living longer than they were 40 years ago and the cost of living and health care continue to climb.If the pension fund can’t meet its obligations to retirees in the future, there is no doubt that taxpayers would be part of the solution.

But why not take one more step that further bolsters the retirement fund while practically guaranteeing that neither beneficiaries nor taxpayers will have to worry about its solvency?

The trustees could do this by recommending that even those now contributing to the system would have to work two more years to get full benefits. In addition to pouring millions more into the pension fund and making it less vulnerable to downturns in the markets, it puts state employees in a position similar to those in the private sector who rely on Social Security to complement their retirement income.

Over the years, the Social Security Administration has raised the age when one can receive full benefits and applied those changes to those already contributing to the fund. For example, everyone born after 1959 can’t collect full benefits until they turn 67.

What’s good for the taxpayer who works in the private sector should be good for the government employee, as well. At the very least, this should be discussed before any changes are made to the current system in South Dakota.

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Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, June 9, 2015

Testing opt-outs should be local decision

For the first time this spring, South Dakota students took a new online achievement test.

The roll-out of the Smarter Balanced assessment was an important milestone in the state’s adoption of new curriculum standards and related efforts to update testing methods.

The English-language arts and math tests are the same exams used in many states and are based on the curriculum standards known as the Common Core. About 70,000 students took the tests.

However, because of objections to the Common Core, some parents asked that their students be exempted from taking the exam.

South Dakota does not allow opt-outs from the testing, so the parents approached individual school districts for permission to exempt their students from testing.

That is the way the process should work. The decisions on parental requests for testing waivers should rest with the local school board and administrators, not be mandated by the state.

During the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers have turned down proposals to formally allow opt-outs for parents. We believe those decisions are correct.

The state adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, after much study, public hearings and involvement from local educators. Millions of dollars have been spent to prepare the curriculum and train educators. We need to support those efforts and let the testing process work.

Standardized tests are necessary to gauge student learning. To get an accurate assessment, all students need to take the exams.

The testing allows educators and parents to measure students against the same learning benchmarks as students in other states. That wasn’t possible with previous testing. And the tests are designed to work individually with each student at his or her learning level.

Allowing students to opt out of taking the tests compromises the results and effectiveness of the measurement.

Each school district should control its own testing processes. If a parent feels strongly that taking the test would be harmful to their children, and can make that argument convincingly, then the district can decide to exempt them.

Exemptions should be reported since the state has to meet participation requirements set by the federal government. It’s important that officials monitor the number of people taking the tests to ensure accuracy and credibility in the results.

Because there is no reporting requirement, it’s difficult to know exactly how many people refused to take the exam this year. But about 80 refusals were voluntarily reported by local districts to the Department of Education, including six from Sioux Falls.

South Dakota students and the quality of the education they receive depend on accurate assessments. The Smarter Balanced tests deliver that information.

The integrity of that testing must be protected.

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Watertown Public Opinion, Watertown, June 16, 2015

Changing referral, initiated process can be tricky

Voters next year could be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that would have a significant impact on initiated measures and referral legislation.

Douglas Kronaizl of Vermillion submitted the final paperwork for his proposed amendment to the South Dakota Secretary of State’s office last Wednesday. State Attorney General Marty Jackley has reviewed the amendment’s wording and delivered his official ballot explanation for it.

In order to bring the proposed amendment to a vote, Kronaizl will need to submit valid signatures of 27,741 registered South Dakota voters no later than Nov. 8 of this year to make the November 2016 general election ballot.

The state constitution currently prohibits referral of laws “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its institutions.”

Kronaizl’s amendment would allow such laws to be referred if a petition carrying the required number of valid signatures is filed within 90 days after the law goes into effect, according to Jackley. It also would create a new limit on the Legislature’s ability to amend or repeal an initiated law already approved by voters. Kronaizl wants to see a two-thirds majority required in each chamber of the Legislature to take action to change or erase an initiated law.

Kronaizl said he is proposing the constitutional amendment in response to two actions by legislators during the 2015 session. One was an attempt by Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, to double the number of signatures necessary for a referral or an initiated measure. The other action that bothered him was the approval of a youth minimum wage at $7.50 per hour for workers younger than age 18 after voters approved raising the minimum wage for everyone to $8.50.

As we read through the story in Saturday’s Public Opinion we found ourselves having mixed emotions on the proposed constitutional amendment. On one hand, we think once an initiated measure is approved by the voters, it should be more difficult for legislators to bypass their intent with a simple majority vote in each house.

If the majority of voters decide that an initiated measure is a necessary change in state law, then that wish should be respected. The legislators, after all, are there to represent the people and being able to overturn legislation they approve by a simple majority vote makes it too easy to ignore their wishes.

When it comes to removing the constitutional protection in place prohibiting the referral of laws “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its institutions,” we’re not so sure that is such a good idea.

While we oppose efforts like Brown’s to double the number of signatures needed to get a referral or initiated measure on the ballot, referring laws “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its institutions” is another ball of wax.

Those are issues that are usually more complicated than people realize and the decisions made in those areas often come about after lengthy debates and discussions over an extended period of time. Allowing people to override such issues simply because they don’t like them for whatever reason could end up doing more harm than good.

These are areas that affect the very workings of government and allowing them to potentially be changed by those perhaps less informed than lawmakers could lead to serious problems.

At this point, it’s not certain whether Kronaizl’s proposed amendment will make it on the ballot. But if it does it’s important for voters make sure they understand not only the intent of the legislation but also its possible consequences.

The initiated and referral process are important components of our government and they must be protected and used wisely in order to make sure they accomplish the purpose intended.

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