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School district reimbursement bill for free and reduced lunches killed

A bill to reimburse school districts for the cost of free and reduced lunches has died in committee.

With federal Covid cash infusions expiring, that means the bill returns to school districts.

At a final annual price of less than $600,000 to the taxpayer, House Bill 1042 would have repaid school districts for the costs of providing food to students who qualify for free and reduced meals.

The bill, brought by Sioux Falls Democrat Kadyn Wittman, fell one vote short of advancing Monday in the House Education Committee.

Jim Terwilliger, commissioner of the Bureau of Finance and Management, testified in opposition.

“This would be an entirely new commitment of ongoing state funding to a program that is already heavily subsidized by the federal government," Terwilliger said. "I would also remind you that we’re subsidizing those as federal taxpayers as well. So, we as a state need to be very careful when we handle federal dollars and federal programs. Since the start of the Covid pandemic, we all know we had an influx of a lot of federal funds, but as I mentioned we have to balance each and every year. The federal government doesn’t have to do that.”

In response, Wittman said investing in student nutrition has tangible effects on the education kids receive.

“There is no free lunch, except for state legislators," Wittman said. "We all get a per diem to pay for our meals while we’re out here, and I think the taxpayers might argue that’s a free lunch for us. If we want South Dakota to pull ahead in terms of test scores, lowering absenteeism, having better health outcomes for our kids, I can’t think of a better investment.”

Several education and health groups support the bill. They say it would save school districts money because they have to foot the bill for negative lunch balances.

Rapid City Republican Rep. Phil Jensen argued it isn’t the government's place to feed schoolchildren.

“Avera, Sanford is swimming in money – why don’t they set up a fund? Denny Sanford, he loves children, he could probably donate some money," Jensen said. "Get an ongoing pool going that would cover all those expenses. So, I’m going to have to vote to send this to the 41st day.”

Jensen also said it’s an issue school fundraiser groups should consider, though some in favor of the bill argued relying on donations is not sustainable.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture