After just four days in session, members of the South Dakota Legislature from the Black Hills region had plenty to talk about at the year's inaugural crackerbarrel on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus in Rapid City.
Education topped the list - both the new Common Core standards and funding levels - followed by Medicaid expansion and funding for the fight against pine beetles in and around the Black Hills National Forest.
Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, told the crowd about a series of bills that came out of a summer study centered on funding for South Dakota's K-12 public schools.
- HB1001 - Would end the practice that allows school districts to use money from capital outlay budgets for operating expenses.
- HB1002 - Would boost the number of hours students are in class for the entire school year. Sly said some districts are at or near the state minimum while others, including Rapid City, are a few hundred hours above that. The range goes from 962 hours to more than 1,200, she said.
- HB1003 - Would set a minimum increase for school funding levels at 2 percent per year, rather than tying it directly to the rate of inflation.
- HB1004 - Would restore the per-student funding level to $4,805, the level before Gov. Dennis Daugaard pushed cuts across state government in 2010.
- HB1005 - Would provide funding for teacher training in technology.
Common Core Standards
Several audience members asked questions about the Common Core standards, a subject growing in controversy across the country. The South Dakota Education Department has begun implementing Common Core in public K-12 schools in South Dakota.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said he would be reluctant to throw Common Core out but would consider tweakint it. "There are some pitfalls that need to be addressed. At the end of the day, we need to have rigorous standards. We are losing our position in the world."
Students are arriving at college unprepared, he said.
Sen. Bruce Rampelberg, R-Rapid City, drew a distinction between concern over the standards themselves and over questions about how they came into being, whether there was a stealth effort from the federal level to implement the standards without public input.
"I want to do what's right for kids and for the different communities," he said. "For sure, we don't want the government to shove this down our throat."
Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, supports Common Core.
"There is no hidden agenda, no federal initative behind this," she said. "We can reach a lot of resources if we know how to access them."
Sly said that concern over the gathering and sharing of student data is "not Common Core state standards" and that the collection of student data is not new.
"There is concern over the data on our students, which by the way we've collected for years and years and years. Just the way that we do it and store it is different," she said, noting the conversion from paper records to computers to "the cloud."
Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, said his biggest concern is the lack of public discussion.
"I do not like the South Dakota Board of Education - all appointed by the governor - trying to get out of No Child Left Behind without a lot of public meetings and public input," Russell said. "Maybe this is good, but we sure as heck should have had a conversation in this state before it got implemented."
He said his own daughter, a sixth-grader, has already had some problems under the new system, which is being implemented over several years. The change was a surprise to him and his wife, he said.
"This hasn't been explained to parents," he said. "It hasn't been explained to me."
Former Sen. Tom Katus, D-Rapid City, asked the lawmakers if they would consider holding a special session after an economic impact analysis conducted in a privately funded study is complete by May.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said he is open to expanding Medicaid. "If there are appropriate safeguards, I'd be ready to talk about approving Medicaid expansion in South Dakota." The 48,000 South Dakotans who would be covered appear to be mostly the working poor rather than "lazy adults."
Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, said she would. "There is no factual information. That's an area that should be explored."
Rep. Kristin Conzet, R-Rapid City, would not support a special session. "We will look at it, but there will not be a special session."
Sen. Bruce Rampelberg, R-Rapid City, said lawmakers should be skeptical whether the federal government could keep its promise to pay for much of Medicaid expansion in the early years.
"There's a lot of moving parts on this. We're just kind of uncomfortable moving into uncharted waters," he said.
Sen. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City, opposes Medicaid expansion. "We do not have money in this state to expand Medicaid. We just don't," he said. "To me, it's a non-starter. You can't spend money you don't have."
Pine Beetle Funding
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, and Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, said they would support a bill that's being drafted to add $2 million to the $350,000 that's in Gov. Dennis Daugaard's proposed budget.
The $350,000 represents a significant drop from the previous year's funding and is what's left from millions of state and federal dollars appropriated to battle pine beetle infestations in Custer State Park and on private property since about 2009.
Gosch said he has been told by a South Dakota Agriculture Department official that efforts to hold the pine beetle outside of Custer State Park have been largely successful but that in 2011 "millions" of beetles flew into the park from the nearby federal Black Elk Wilderness Area.
"We have gotten ahead of the game in Custer State Park," Gosch said. "But until the right problem is solved of these wilderness areas an dhow they are managed ... one lightning strike is going to take all that and wipe it out. It's a tinderbox."