I spent the past Saturday back in Pierre, not for any official business, but to volunteer in a mock legislative session for high school students, including two great students from Yankton. Veto day was only two weeks ago, but walking through the capitol building, you could have convinced me it was longer. The capitol was quiet and mostly empty, except for our rambunctious group of students and volunteers. It is always hard to summarize a legislative session, but being back this weekend, I was able to get a sense of the place, what happened and what I wish had happened.
Every session feels like a roller coaster with highs and lows, twist and turns, soldiering climbs and moments that take your breath away. Here were some of the highs and lows of this legislative session:
1. Needs-based scholarships. We established the South Dakota Freedom Scholarship, which will significantly increase the amount of needs-based scholarships to low-income students at our public, private and tribal universities. While the legislature set up the fund, most of the money will actually come from non-government sources. This scholarship fund will provide thousands of dollars to thousands of low-income residents who do not otherwise have the means for a post- secondary education and will also lower the total amount of student loan debt students have after college.
2. Significant funding increase for Community Support Providers and Nursing Homes. If you have followed my columns, you know that I believe the way we fund our nursing homes on taxpayer dollars is fundamentally flawed. Our long term care system financing model leads to over half of our elderly population to end up as paupers, taxpayers covering their care, and an underfunded system that results in low wages and closure of nursing homes. But with our large budget surplus, we were able to significantly increase nursing home funding. This will not solve the long-term issues with how we pay for nursing home care, but it should keep more nursing homes open and improve nursing home employee wages and staffing. We were able to provide more funds for community support providers who provide vital resources often including financial independence, to the developmentally disabled, and as a result, enrich the diversity of abilities within our community.
3. Funding for First Responders. There is a lot of disagreement in Pierre, but we have always rallied around our veterans and first responders. This year, my legislation to provide mental health support for first responders passed with overwhelming support. This legislation initially met resistance and would not have passed without the powerful testimony of a local first responder, who undoubtedly changed more minds than any of my own words. As a result, our volunteer firefighters will have more access to mental health services if they need it, and our police and fire departments will be able to expand mental health training opportunities.
1. State employee health plan is gutted. For reasons I still do not understand, the legislature gutted the state employee health plan. Despite a record budget surplus, state employees will have higher deductibles, higher out of pocket maximums, and higher monthly premiums with no wage adjustments. State employees with families will be particularly harmed. In August, Gov. Noem will announce a state budget surplus. But one person’s surplus is another person’s deficit. This year, our pending budget surplus will be our state employee’s deficit.
2. State Trust Funds. The legislature appropriated another $100 million to South Dakota’s trusts. State government currently has $4.1 billion tucked away in various trusts. Unfortunately, the legislature restricts the amount of income that is distributed from these trusts, so they do not have much of an impact for South Dakota. Our trusts are good for San Francisco and Seattle though. For example, the Health Care Trust Fund has nearly $18 million invested in Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. That’s pretty nice for the tech industry, but I don’t know how it helps lower health care costs or improve access to healthcare for South Dakotans. In that same fund, South Dakota has nearly $32 million invested in foreign countries. That’s $50 million in big tech and foreign countries. The Education Enhancement Trust Fund, the Dakota Cement Trust, School and Public Lands Trust are similarly invested which means South Dakota has hundreds of millions of dollars invested in these companies and in foreign countries. In contrast, our state economic development budget in FY 2020 was $57 million. It’s inappropriate, and I am disappointed the legislature put more money into big tech and foreign countries than into South Dakota’s economy.