District 5 Legislature canddidates, from left, Hugh Bartels, Shelly Alvine, Nancy York and Chuck Haan take questions Tuesday evening during a candidate forum sponsored by the watertown area Chamber of Commerce. Two of the four will represent the district in the S.D. House of Representatives.
If Tuesday’s District 5 House of Representatives candidates forum at Lake Area Technical Institute was any indication, the 2017 South Dakota legislative session could be an extension of the 2016 session.
Vying for two spots, Democratic candidate Shelly Alvine, independent candidate Chuck Haan, and Republican candidates Nancy York and Hugh Bartels discussed everything from possible Medicaid expansion and the one-half cent sales tax increase targeted toward South Dakota’s public school and technical institute teaching salaries to possible legalization of medical and recreational marijuana and corruption at the state level.
While Medicaid expansion may be a major topic during the 2017 session, candidates are waiting to hear the details before committing either way. In late 2015, Daugaard expressed hope the expansion would be fully funded by the federal government and provide coverage for up to 55,000 additional adults. Daugaard ultimately pulled it off the legislative docket late in the 2016 session.
“There are just a lot of questions with that,” Bartels said, citing the three-year window for federal funding of expansion and the two failed lawsuits to collect money geared toward Indian Health Services. “We need to know a lot of those things so we don’t have to institute another tax to keep (Medicaid expansion) going in the future.”
Revisiting another major topic from the 2016 session, the four candidates said they would battle to keep the one-half cent sales tax increase should a movement arise in repealing that tax as written in House Bill 1182. The tax was passed, after a contentious battle, in an effort to get public school teaching salaries up to an average of $48,500 in the hopes of becoming more competitive with surrounding states.
“The tax is there now. It is in place. I think it gives the stability to that program,” York said. “If we were to reverse that now, it would be like starting all over fresh. Are we now going to take that money away from the teachers that so richly deserved that raise?”
Alvine also defended the tax and the positive impact it had on the teaching salaries, but acknowledged the regressive nature of a sales tax.
“It was the tax we could get passed this year, and it was so important for the teachers and for the schools,” Alvine said. “In the long run, it will be the best thing for academic development.”
Citing support for the tax increase, Bartels highlighted the property tax relief also present in the legislation.
“There is $37 million that’s going to come back in real estate taxes,” Bartels said. “There’s a 7 to 9 percent reduction in real estate taxes. Take away the half-cent, the taxes on your house are going to go up 7 to 9 percent next year.”
While Haan said he is fine with the tax increase, he expressed concern with the funding formula legislation that was passed. Namely, he wants to make sure the funds are evenly distributed.
The funding formula was reconfigured to allocate state aid to districts meeting target student-to-teacher ratios under Senate Bill 131.
As a former school board member in the 1990s, Bartels expects the funding formula to be observed over the next three to five years.
“It’s going to be an issue that we have to watch closely to make sure it’s fair and equitable as these changes are made,” Bartels said.
Alvine concurred with Bartels’ prediction.
“It looks like some of the small schools and declining enrollment schools kind of got left in the woods on this teacher pay issue,” Alvine said. “There will be a lot of time spent on that.”
In another issue, Alvine expressed dismay at the Gear Up embezzlement of state funds and the EB-5 visa scandals that have rocked the state over the past few years. Those two scandals have helped give credence to an image among some measurements that South Dakota is one of the more corrupt states in the nation.
Alvine shared some ideas to address the scandals, including the establishment of an ethics committee. Greater two-party representation in the state legislature would help, according to Alvine.
“We have to do better,” Alvine said. “We have Republicans appointing Republicans and Republicans watching them. That’s why we need more Democrats out there. We need two parties out there to look over each other. It’s just common sense legislation that we could pass together.”
Alvine doesn’t believe the conflict of interest law passed by the legislature in the wake of the Gear Up scandal last session goes far enough. Under the law, members of governing bodies such as school boards are required to disclose if they have any potential conflicts of interest on agenda items.
The four candidates did find consensus on LGBTQ issues, including the controversial proposed House Bill 1008 – commonly referred to as the transgender bathroom bill – authored by outgoing District 4 Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence. Under the bill, transgender students would have been required to use toilet and locker facilities designated for their birth gender rather than their identified gender. After immense opposition, the bill was vetoed by Daugaard.
With Deutsch watching from the audience, the four candidates said they have no interest in revisiting the topic should they get elected, saying it should be left at the local level.
Using the example of Watertown High School, Bartels said, “I think (Supt.) Dr. Lesli Jutting and (WHS Principal) Dr. Michael Butts could control what goes on in their high school way better than 105 people out in Pierre. There’s a lot of things that go into that. Leaving it in the local school will make for a lot better solution to that situation. I think that would come with some penalties from the federal government and take some funds away from us that we depend on.”
“I wished I lived 20 years ago when it was as simple as a boy is a boy and a girl is a girl. However, now it’s not so simple anymore,” York said. “I try to be understanding to everybody’s point of view and still stay true to my own conservative values. The best way is to leave it up to the local schools.”
Likewise, the candidates would also not support legislation that would be in defiance to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation in 2015 under the Obergefell v. Hodges case.
“At our level of government, it won’t be any good. That’s a federal issue,” Bartels explained, characterizing himself in the middle of the issue. “If they are an actual couple and they want to dedicate themselves to each other, that’s fine with me.”
The four candidates are vying for two spots that will be vacated by Republican Reps. Roger Solum and Lee Schoenbeck at the start of the 2017 legislative session. Facing term limits in the House, Solum was defeated in his bid for the South Dakota Senate by Neal Tapio in the Republican primary last June. Facing no opposition in the Nov. 8 general election, Tapio is now the presumed District 5 senator.
Schoenbeck opted not to run for another term in the House of Representatives after a contentious 2016 session that saw him barred from caucusing with the House Republicans after critical comments toward Majority Leader Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City.
- South Dakota
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