BROOKINGS – Candidates for the state Legislature from District 7 offered their thoughts on topics as varied as political affiliation, education funding, Medicaid expansion and legislative committees at a Saturday forum at the Brookings City & County Government Center.
The Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee hosted the forum, which featured all District 7 candidates who are on the Nov. 6 election ballot: Independent Mary Perpich and Republican V.J. Smith, vying for a single state Senate seat; and Independent Cory Ann Ellis, Democrats Bill Adamson and Zachary Kovach and Republicans Doug Post and Tim Reed, vying for two seats in the state House of Representatives.
Moderator Dan Hansen asked the candidates to share their thoughts on the current state of K-12 and higher education funding plus the proposed Initiated Measure 25, a $1-per-pack tobacco tax increase, with revenue to go to technical institutes.
Post says he’s talking to relatives who work in the education field, and they still report difficulties finding enough funds to fill support staff positions, like bus drivers, food service workers and librarians.
“One of the biggest stresses they’ve got right now is, we’ve boosted teacher pay recently, and we’re also waiting to see how much the internet sales tax will help boost the state’s budget so we’ll be able to throw more funds toward education if it’s warranted,” Post said.
He added that he’s not in favor of IM 25.
“If it works, smoking is reduced, then that money disappears and we’ll have another funding problem,” Post said.
Smith said 49 percent of the state’s budget goes toward education, and it speaks to South Dakota’s priorities.
When the Legislature passed the half-cent tax to augment teachers’ salaries, he wrote a letter to the governor thanking him for showing his daughters, who are teachers, that they have value. Lawmakers don’t get enough credit when they do good things, he added.
“We do a lot of good with respect to education. Am I happy with the increase in salaries for teachers? Yeah. Am I satisfied? No. We have to continue to support the teachers and the staff,” Smith said.
Ellis said she’s a product of public education, and she’s still in contact with many of her teachers, coaches and support staff who helped her when she was in school.
“I am a strong supporter of public education, and not just for teacher pay, but overall. We’re asking more of our public schools now. … As we’ve increased these requirements, we haven’t funded them. We are not fully funding our public education, and we have to,” Ellis said.
She said it wasn’t her role to tell voters whether or not to support IM 25. “This is up to the people. There’s a lot of opportunities to do the research, so have fun.”
Adamson said education funding is critical to South Dakota.
“By not providing a full increase in inflationary cost (to the per-student funding formula), which has been going on for the last 10 years or so, the South Dakota Legislature is actually underfunding education.”
If the state had followed its own formula, it wouldn’t have needed the half-penny sales tax increase, Adamson added. The same thing is happening with the state’s university system, with more costs being shifted onto students.
Reed said education is important, but there have been times when the state has not had the revenue to fully fund its formula, “and we do get behind.”
“We would have had to continue to raise taxes to keep up with the formula,” maybe even beyond the half-penny tax. The law creating the half-penny tax included an amendment for it to end when the state started collecting internet sales tax.
“The No. 1 thing that I think has to happen is that we cannot go by that. We basically have to rescind that amendment, because we need that half-penny to keep up,” Reed added.
Technical schools do need funding, and he said voters should not listen to the argument that money raised by IM 25 would not go toward that need.
“When the Legislature is mandated to do something like that, they will do it,” Reed said.
Kovach said most can agree that education is something worth spending money on.
“As somebody who’s just been through the K-12 public education system and is currently in the higher education system, we can be doing more. We can be doing better,” Kovach said.
The state needs to do something to make it possible for people who want to go to college to do so.
“I’m saddled with over $50,000 of student loan debt right now. That’s not OK. That takes people whose dream is to go to college, that takes it away from them, because it’s unreasonable,” Kovach said.
He added that he thinks IM 25, which could discourage people from smoking and encourage them to go to technical school, is fantastic.
Perpich said as a retired teacher, she understands how inadequate funding can affect a public school system and a university system.
“That’s why I want to work in Pierre to make it possible to put more funding into the universities and technical schools and K-12 systems. We need a pre-K program in South Dakota. We’re one of only seven states that does not have one,” and students who go to pre-K are more likely to go to college.
Perpich said she wasn’t in favor of IM 25, calling it a regressive tax.
“It only taxes a certain part, the people who smoke. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Views on Meidcaid, current funding and possible expansion were varied as well.
Smith said “money isn’t free, even on the Medicaid issue. South Dakota has put up some $300 million a year. The question is, how much more can we put up, because it has to come from people.
“Would you love to help everyone? Absolutely. But sometimes there’s not the money to be able to do that,” Smith said.
Ellis said she didn’t know a lot about the issue, and she would “need to do a lot more research on this before I can give you a legitimate answer, and I’m not afraid to say that.”
Adamson said the state needs to take “a very serious look” at Medicaid coverage.
South Dakota is a low-wage state and a low-benefits state with uninsured working households, Adamson said.
Reed said “we’re going to have to approach this in a balanced way and see how we can improve Medicaid and hopefully get some more of what the federal obligation is to provide health care for Native Americans.”
Kovach said he supports some form of universal health care, plus expanding Medicaid and Medicare. “I believe that health care is a right and not a privilege.”
Kovach said he’s not insured. “Am I supposed to limit what I’m able to do … based on the fact that I’m not insured? I can’t go out. I can’t enjoy myself. I have to be extraordinarily careful and not have fun because I’m uninsured. This takes away so much from people. We shouldn’t be afraid to live.”
Perpich said the state should partner with IHS to extend health care coverage to working people who cannot afford it.
“I believe in universal health care. I believe that the 20 million people across the country who are enrolled in the Affordable Care Act … deserve to be covered, and we should not be dropping any of the stipulations of that plan,” she said.
Post said the people who would be affected by a Medicaid expansion are “people without dependents, they’re able-bodied, they’re not elderly, and they’re probably not working full time. In my opinion from what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of priorities in this state that are more important than Medicaid expansion.”
Post said the Department of Social Services and Child Protective Services are extremely underfunded and would be a better spending priority.
Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]