PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - In the newly unveiled portrait of Dennis Daugaard hanging in the Capitol, the outgoing governor stands before the building’s granite cornerstone, a background chosen to emphasize Daugaard’s relentless focus on maintaining state buildings and strengthening South Dakota’s finances in his two terms in office.
The retiring Republican takes deep pride in South Dakota’s financial health, touting the state’s structurally balanced budget, fully funded retirement system and AAA credit rating in his farewell address this month. It’s a commitment that’s spanned the partisan divide: Daugaard orchestrated a massive cut in state spending to erase a budget deficit early in his first term and then championed tax hikes unpopular with conservatives in his second.
“In South Dakota, we don’t let ideology get in the way of solving problems, and we don’t let politics get in the way of professionalism, respect and friendship,” Daugaard said in the speech to lawmakers. “That’s why our state works. That’s why our Legislature works, and as I end 22 years of service in this Capitol, I thank you all for that. I hope that never changes.”
Elected in 2010, Daugaard is leaving in January after term limits barred him from running again; before occupying the governor’s office, he served as a state legislator and lieutenant governor. Daugaard’s departure caps a tenure that saw South Dakota dramatically reshape its criminal justice system, move out of last in the nation for teacher pay and win a U.S. Supreme Court case allowing states to force online shoppers to pay sales tax. The state raised revenues for roads and bridges and weathered Missouri River flooding.
Daugaard is described by confidants as a thoughtful and pragmatic leader. He fought for the tax increases and sought to expand eligibility for Medicaid under former President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. He signed into law conservative priorities such as a 20-week abortion ban and giving legal protections to religious-affiliated adoption agencies that refuse to place children in certain households. He vetoed measures to expand gun rights and restrict which bathrooms transgender students could use at school.
“I’m sure there are some who see me as too conservative and some who see me as too liberal, and maybe that isn’t a bad spot to be in,” Daugaard said last year.
Looking back on his time at the helm of state government, Daugaard told The Associated Press that he feels good about the state’s top-notch credit rating and his handling of state assets, including the Capitol building. He said he’s followed the philosophy that “you ought leave things better than you found them.” His not-so-flashy quest to achieve AAA status included sending officials to New York, making public more financial information and successfully urging voters to adopt a balanced budget constitutional amendment.
Incoming U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, who was Daugaard’s chief of staff during his first term, said the governor will be remembered for his fiscal responsibility during the Great Recession. He said Daugaard loves “structural integrity,” finding something in danger of becoming deficient and making it stronger.
“To a remarkable degree, he is who people think he is. They think he’s fiscally responsible, they think he’s earnest, they think he’s data-driven and pragmatic and those things are as true when no one is watching as when everyone is watching,” Johnson said. “He cares about politics less than any other major league politician that I’ve met.”
Working with lawmakers, Daugaard listed as accomplishments the adult and juvenile justice overhauls, the teacher pay hike and changes to the state’s education funding formula to force school districts to manage their staffing. Those legislative wins came after a shift in approach from Daugaard, who in 2012 shepherded into law a disputed measure to give bonuses to top teachers and phase out tenure only to see it rejected later in a public vote.
Daugaard said he learned from the rebuke. Instead of making policy on his own instincts, he turned instead to gathering data and people together to come up with solutions.
“He will be known as someone who cared about the details and was very, very concerned about making the best decision for the people of South Dakota,” Republican Gov.-elect Kristi Noem said. “He is a good man, with a good heart that always kept South Dakota his priority, and that’s a huge testimony to his legacy that he’ll leave with South Dakota.”
But some of the most conservative lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature have been waiting for Daugaard’s exit. It appears likely a measure he vetoed to allow people to carry concealed handguns without a permit in South Dakota, a conservative prize, will become law under Noem.
“There are a lot of Republicans that are very excited to have a conservative governor,” incoming GOP Sen. Lynne DiSanto, sponsor of a permitless concealed carry bill that Daugaard rejected, said last month. “I think under a new governor it’s very likely to pass.”
After leaving office, Daugaard, 65, intends to work and return with First Lady Linda Daugaard to their family home near Dell Rapids. He plans on spending time with family, and his big project will be converting a three-season porch, doing much of the work himself.
Daugaard said in 2016 that he and the first lady are looking forward to leaving politics. He remarked in a November column that he’s not someone who worries much about a legacy.
“I’d be unhappy if people thought I was doing something to make me look good,” Daugaard said. “I want to do good - and not … create a legacy in the sense that it makes me look good. If it’s a legacy with a connotation that it has some lasting effect, that’s good, and I’m happy with that.”
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