- Associated Press - Monday, February 22, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The proposed half-cent sales tax hike that would help fund Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s plan to raise teacher pay survived a difficult political test Monday by clearing the state House after narrowly failing there last week.

The full chamber voted 47-21 to approve the plan, hitting the required two-thirds margin necessary to pass the tax hike. The proposal fell just one vote short of that threshold last week, but Monday’s vote means the measure is headed to the state Senate.

Advocates for the tax increase argued the state needs a sustainable funding source to boost teacher pay, and they celebrated the bill’s passage. Daugaard said he’s “very pleased” with the vote, adding that “passing this first step is a very good thing.”

“It’s one of the most exciting days of my career in education,” said Mary McCorkle, president of the South Dakota Education Association, a professional organization with more than 5,000 members.

Momentum has been building to raise South Dakota’s teacher pay, which a state task force studying education funding said is the lowest of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. If the bill is approved, 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 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.

A large chunk of the increase would also go to property tax relief, while an amendment approved by House lawmakers would put some of the funding toward salaries at technical schools.

Opponents of the tax hike argued that education could be prioritized in existing tax dollars. Republican Rep. Roger Hunt said the hike simply amounted to putting more money into a “broken” education system.

The opponents were successful in blocking the plan last week, but supporters pushed to have the bill reconsidered, and they were able to move it forward Monday.

Two Republican lawmakers switched their votes to support the measure, while a Democrat flipped to oppose it. Republican Rep. Scott Craig issued a statement late Friday saying he planned to change his vote to keep the sales tax proposal moving through the Legislature.

“I thought my mind clear, and I determined what was necessary was to change my vote to tell the teachers and to tell the state this Legislature does value teachers, does value education and we are working on something,” Craig said after the plan passed.

Robin Curtis, a teacher at Winner School District who has come to the Capitol to support the tax hike, said she watched a livestream of the House considering the bill with her students Monday at school. Curtis said she’s excited about the outcome of the vote, but said “there’s still more work to do.”

House Republican leader Brian Gosch, an opponent of the tax hike, was pursuing a raise for teachers without increasing taxes. But that effort is unlikely to spur much interest from supporters of the sales tax plan, he said.

“It’s what I expected, and the sun will come up tomorrow,” Gosch said.

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