- Associated Press - Monday, December 16, 2019

Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Dec. 10

Budget woes and revenue solutions

Perhaps money really doesn’t make the world go around - with apologies to “Cabaret” - but it sure does help keep the wheels of government moving.

The Yankton area has been able to see some examples of that in everyday application.

Last week, for instance, Gov. Kristi Noem proposed a fiscal year 2021 budget of more than $4.9 billion that nonetheless confronts some tremendous hardships due to this year’s storms and the poor agricultural economy. She proposed no funding increases for education, Medicaid providers and state employees. A lot could change between now and the end of the upcoming legislative session in March, but the bottom line is that the state is strapped for cash again.



Meanwhile, the Yankton School District is prepared to pursue an opt-out from the property tax freeze as it tries to cope with its own tight finances. The opt-out would be for four years and $1.85 million annually. (It doesn’t necessarily have to be for all four years if the situation improves.) This comes after the state has come up short a few times in the past decade with its funding obligations and, as noted above, is proposing to do so again.

Yankton County is also struggling financially in dealing with its road and bridge issues. (It’s one reason why the recent disaster declaration for the September flooding came as relief in more ways than one.) Still, the county faces difficult choices ahead as it tries to use what funds it has in the most prudent manner possible.

The one outlier in all this appears to be the City of Yankton, which is enjoying a good year in terms of revenue, much to the surprise of many. After an up-and-down year in 2018 and in the face of bad weather and that ag economy, the city budgeted for zero growth in 2019, but has instead seen solid monthly revenue returns. The October report, whose numbers aren’t final due to a new state system for processing such information, indicated a month of healthy growth, which, again was somewhat unexpected. Based on cash on hand, this year’s October report (which actually covers the last half of September and the first half of October) could be up 8% from the same period a year ago.

So, what’s going on in Yankton? It’s hard to pinpoint.

City officials said it may be that someone who was supposed to pay a fee or tax previously did so now, thus producing a bump. But that wouldn’t account for the healthy monthly trend.

Elsewhere, there’s no denying that a lot of construction is going, particularly at Mount Marty College, which is speeding ahead on its fieldhouse. (A new resident hall will soon be added to this mix, which will further bolster the impact.)

Also, it’s quite possible that the September flooding itself may have produced an impact, as people cleaning up flooded properties likely had to purchase supplies and materials to commence those repairs.

The latter two items point to what is desperately needed elsewhere: new revenue growth. In Yankton’s case, construction projects are projects of expansion, and that helps feed the coffers.

Obviously, that’s a lot easier said than done, especially when applied to the other, aforementioned governing entities, particularly the school district, whose own financial health is heavily tied to growth elsewhere.

But at the state and county levels, revenue growth is an issue that can be addressed directly, albeit controversially in some places.

Should South Dakota look at hemp as a new cash crop? Could expanded gambling be a way of luring more money into the state? Would a small summertime sales-tax bump help the state reap more rewards from its tourism trade? In a worst-case scenario, is an income tax something that should be examined?

As for the county, would more aggressive development help feed coffers that are badly in need of filling? This gets into the issue not only of CAFOs but also other industries that could be open to coming to this county. Also, how big of a door would it be to open if a natural gas line came into the county? That could be a real game-changer.

These are not easy questions, and they could lead to difficult, contentious answers.

But when one is painfully hamstrung by finite funds, the best solution is to expand that base. It may mean thinking outside the proverbial box, but it’s better than hacking away muscle and bone just to make ends meet.

___

Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Dec. 13

Time to stop ignoring deaf education issues

Ignored.

It’s a fitting way to describe the status of many deaf and hard-of-hearing children in South Dakota, whose unique educational needs have been compromised at every turn by state leaders seeking a more convenient and affordable path.

An Argus Leader investigation detailed a systematic lack of leadership and accountability among lawmakers, educators and government officials, forcing hundreds of families to scramble for educational opportunities that children with disabilities are guaranteed under federal law.

Of course, that’s where it gets complicated. Loopholes and rationalizations abound. Frustration mounts. As time passes without progress, the silence is deafening.

Children with other disabilities don’t always qualify for offerings at the South Dakota School for the Deaf, a once-thriving Sioux Falls institution now housed in a former bank building in a commercial area not far from a strip club.

Those who are enrolled don’t always receive high-quality services, and certainly not the level of attention the school provided in its heyday as a residential campus. There’s an increased reliance on outreach programs with school districts, many of which lack the trained staff or resources to help deaf students thrive.

The South Dakota Board of Regents was tasked with supervising the residential School for the Deaf campus, which was established in 1880 in central Sioux Falls and written into the state constitution.

When challenges arose, which they often did, including declining enrollment and allegations of verbal and sexual harassment involving an administrator, the default reaction was to dial back services and save money.

The only way to reverse that trend would have been for powerful people in Pierre to declare that the needs of the state’s deaf community were worth the financial commitment, and to fight for legislation toward that end. That leadership never came.

In fact, former Democratic legislator Dan Ahlers told the Argus Leader he was urged to “let it go” when he worked with parents and lawmakers to shed light on disturbing trends in deaf education and explore solutions.

“What I learned right away was there was a lot of pressure coming from around the office to not get involved,” said Ahlers, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2020.

Lawmakers’ willful inaction has been emboldened by complexities in how federal guidelines are interpreted and carried out.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 mandated that public schools provide services for disabled children that emulate as closely as possible the educational experience of non-disabled students.

That led to many of the School for the Deaf students shifting to more of an outreach program to local school districts, but specialized services did not always follow. Sign language interpreters are expensive, and the lone deaf education degree program was phased out in 2016 by Augustana University.

There’s hope that a new advisory council for the South Dakota School for the Deaf will shed light on these issues, and a 2018 law known as the Language Equity and Acquisition for Deaf Kids law awaits meaningful action from the South Dakota Department of Education.

So far, though, calls for reform have been stymied by the fact it’s too easy for those in power to pass the buck through a maze of what one attorney for disabled rights called a “uniquely confusing and muddled” system.

For the estimated 600 deaf and hard-of-hearing kids in South Dakota, the future depends on state leaders finding the intestinal fortitude to fight through that tangled web, ensuring that some of the most vulnerable members of their citizenry no longer feel ignored.

___

Aberdeen American News, Dec. 14

From about $41K to $58K for governor’s daughter

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made one thing clear in her recent annual budget address.

Money is tight.

Extremely tight.

For the first time since 2016, school districts won’t be receiving an increase in state aid to raise teacher salaries under Noem’s proposed 2021 budget. That’s even though the Legislature approved a half-cent increase in the state sales tax in 2016 that was, in part, specifically designated to boost South Dakota’s shabby teacher pay. Noem asked state agencies to tighten their belts as we head into a financially difficult year.

Also in her Dec. 2 budget address, Noem said there will be no inflationary increase for Medicaid providers and no raises for state employees.

All of the bad news left some leaders of state agencies nervous, elderly scared, state employees mad and education leaders panicked.

We assume Noem spent a significant amount of time crafting her budget proposal and considered how it would work and what was right and responsible to ask of the state’s departments, employees, beneficiaries and taxpayers.

But as all this planning was going on, so was something else. Someone else in state government was getting ahead.

That would be Kennedy Noem, the governor’s daughter, who now works for her mother as a policy analyst.

In 2018, Kennedy was hired as part of her mother’s transition team. She was still a senior at South Dakota State University at the time, preparing for a December graduation.

Her starting salary was $40,700. That’s not outlandish, but it’s more than most working South Dakotans make.

According to a South Dakota News Watch analysis of 2017 wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the U.S. Department of Labor done earlier this year, roughly 21% of employed South Dakota residents - about 87,000 people - make under $30,000 a year; 41% of employed South Dakota residents - about 169,400 people - make under $35,000 a year; and 71% of employed South Dakota residents - about 292,000 people - make under $40,000 a year.

On Jan. 5, 2019, when Kennedy started her gig as a policy analyst - different from being a member of the transition team - her salary was increased to $50,000 a year.

Then, in July, along with all other state employees, she got a 2.5% salary boost, taking her annual wage to $51,250.

According to South Dakota’s transparency website, Open SD, Kennedy is now making $57,912 a year.

So she has gone from making $40,700 to $57,912 annually in a little more than a year. That is an increase of a little more than 42%. That’s a big jump.

From July to now, her salary has gone up roughly 13%.

The governor has defended the increase and explained that Kennedy’s duties have expanded. But the news still hasn’t landed well with many in South Dakota, especially given the recent budget proposal.

Certainly promotions merit raises. But most people can only dream of such big raises in such a modest amount of time.

Especially when many in South Dakota are doing more work for the same pay they had a year ago. Or two years ago. Or three. And especially when the governor’s budget plan ignores the purpose of the half-cent sales tax increase from just a few years ago.

Kristi Noem has every right to hire family members. It’s a longstanding, if regrettable, tradition in state government. Her son-in-law, Kyle Peters, earns $59,194 yearly working for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

And she’s not plowing any new ground.

Former Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s son, Chris, was hired as an initiative and utility analyst at the state Public Utilities Commission. And his son-in-law, Tony Venhuizen, became Daugaard’s communications director and, later, chief of staff. Before that, Mike Rounds had family members who worked for the state.

All of that is fine, per state law. So were Kennedy Noem’s raises, for that matter. We hope she’s worth every penny.

But when word of her pay increases leaked, it was bound look somewhere between tone deaf and flat-out bad in wake of the governor’s inability to find money for so many other worthy agencies and people in the state.

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