- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The proposed half-cent sales tax increase that would help fund Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s plan to improve South Dakota teacher pay narrowly failed Tuesday in the state House of Representatives.

The vote in the chamber was 46-23, just one short of the two-thirds margin required to pass a tax hike. But a lawmaker gave notice he intends to attempt to revive the tax increase for teacher pay, which a state task force studying education funding found is the lowest of the 50 states and District of Columbia.

Education advocates said they’re disappointed with the outcome of the vote, but intend to keep pushing lawmakers for their support.

“We cannot let the status quo continue as we watch our teachers leave and our students left without opportunities,” said Mary McCorkle, president of the South Dakota Education Association, a professional organization with more than 5,000 members. “We have to act.”

Momentum has been building in the state to raise educators’ salaries. Spectators packed the House’s upper gallery during the debate.

The Republican governor’s proposed sales tax increase would raise more than $100 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.

If enacted, it would be the first permanent increase to the state’s sales tax rate of 4 cents per dollar in nearly half a century.

About $62.4 million from the sales tax hike would go toward teacher salaries and about $40 million would go to property tax relief, according to the governor’s office.

But opponents argued that education could be prioritized in existing tax dollars.

Republican Rep. Steve Westra, who opposed the bill, said school districts have hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank and argued that money from a tax hike wouldn’t actually reach teachers.

“The problem is not that we underfund education, but we have a broken system,” Westra said. “Taxing South Dakota families to perpetuate this system is wrong.”

The governor’s administration knew the vote was going to be close, said Daugaard’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, who anticipated that lawmakers will support the move to reconsider the bill.

“We need one person to change their mind,” he said.

House Republican leader Brian Gosch, an opponent of the tax hike, had predicted it was unlikely to succeed and set about finding a tax-free contingency for teacher pay.

Gosch said after the vote that he has contacted Daugaard’s office and the Senate to discuss alternative proposals for funding education.

Robin Curtis, a teacher at the Winner School District who came to the Capitol to watch the vote, said she remains optimistic.

“We don’t throw our hands up and walk away,” Curtis said. “That isn’t what we do in a classroom when we have a kid who is having a hard day.”


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