Lawmakers from districts in and around Sioux Falls are previewing their priorities for the 2016 legislative session. Wednesday morning a couple hundred people attended an annual breakfast from the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce to hear what lawmakers anticipate in the coming weeks.
Lawmakers from 10 districts in southeastern South Dakota say they’re working on legislation from work comp law to Medicaid expansion. Yet by far legislators are focusing their work on education issues. They talk teacher pay, fair school funding, and even the basic way the state’s education system functions.
Roxie Loftesness is president of AvailAbility Employment Services. She says she appreciates that lawmakers are concentrating on education.
“Oh, in staffing it’s absolutely a necessity to have the quality teachers to bring the education forth, recognize the needs that we need in our state and to retain the talent that we have growing up in our state – and that they have the tools in the trades, you know, not just the four-year degrees that people go on to achieve through education but also those trades that are important to us maintaining the infrastructure of our communities and our cities, too,” Loftesness says.
Technical education is a critical piece of that, according to State Representative Larry Zikmund. He says exposing students to tech skills in high school and middle school benefits students and South Dakota’s economy.
“As I talk to principals, principals are saying, ‘Let’s not forget the 7th and 8th grade programs,” Zikmund says. “Quite a few of them would like to get back to that, but they need some funding available to them and support available to them, so we need to look at getting back to rebuilding the complete system in vocational/technical education at that 7th through 12th grade level to provide a good workforce for our people.”
Education is likely to take a focus Tuesday as the session begins with Governor Dennis Daugaard’s State of the State address. He’s slated to announce his plan for funding education following a massive effort from lawmakers, schools and stakeholders in last year’s Blue Ribbon Task Force.
Lawmakers on a committee that hashes out the state’s budget numbers are changing their schedule for this legislative session. Members of the Joint Appropriations committee are splitting 2016 meetings by months.
State Senator Deb Peters is chair. She says the first month is dedicated to hearings from state agencies who explain their current funding and future needs. Peters says then in February lawmakers will approve individual agency budgets.
"The entire second month of our process is really going to be setting budgets as we go, and that’s going to include all spending bills to be associated," Peters says. "So, for an example, Department of Education: we’ll take all Department of Education funding bills at the same time we take their entire budgets, and we will pick apart their budget and put it together. And hopefully it will all make sense with all of the special bills and the ongoing spending bills, and it’ll just be all-encompassing Department of Ed budget bill done at the end of the day."
Peters says the change aims to increase transparency during the appropriations process.
Members of the committee used to approve final budget numbers in the last week of the session. Peters says lawmakers are finalizing revenue numbers one month earlier this year, so they have more time to adjust the budget so the numbers balance.
Initiated Measure Laws
One state lawmaker says South Dakota needs to change its rules related to initiated measures to maintain the integrity of the process. State Representative Jim Bolin says the opportunity for citizens to sign petitions and get a measure up for vote is supposed to be a local effort. He says he wants new rules to ensure South Dakotans are circulating petitions.
"Right now the law says you have to be a resident of the state, and what does that mean? Some people say, ‘Well, I’m living in a motel for two weeks. I’m therefore a resident of the state.’ I think we’d have a better process and we would actually restore the idea of initiative and referendum being a grassroots effort from the people by having any petition circulator be a registered voter in the state," Bolin says.
The state lawmaker says he also wants circulators to wear ID badges that list their name and county.
Bolin says he also thinks no more than half of signatures on initiated measure petitions should be from people in Minnehaha, Lincoln, and Pennington counties. He says requiring supporters to get signers from urban and rural areas best represents the will of South Dakotans.