Some areas worthy of legislative summer study; some are not

By Dana Hess

South Dakota Searchlight

Posted 4/8/24

Don’t think for a moment that just because the final gavel has fallen on the 2024 legislative session that the work of lawmakers is over for the year. That work continues on through the summer.

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Some areas worthy of legislative summer study; some are not


Don’t think for a moment that just because the final gavel has fallen on the 2024 legislative session that the work of lawmakers is over for the year. That work continues on through the summer.

Soon after the final gavel fell, the Legislature’s Executive Board met to discuss topics for summer studies. The board decided on two summer studies as well as the formation of a committee. The committee will be in contact with leaders at Ellsworth Air Force Base to make sure the Legislature stays informed on that area’s needs as it sees tremendous growth through the implementation of the B-21 bomber program.

One summer study will be a combination of two subjects: state government’s role in regulating the internet with regard to artificial intelligence and teenagers’ access to online pornography. (For those of you who like to wager, if the contest is between internet blocking technology and teenagers, always bet on teens.)

The other summer study will look at the methodology for property tax assessments to make sure that they are accurate and consistent. Not everyone on the board was enthusiastic about this subject, as they thought citizens would see that the Legislature was studying property taxes and then expect their tax bills to go down.

“I think you’re going to regret this big-time,” said Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a Republican from Watertown and chairman of the Executive Board. “I’d rather go to the dentist than sit in on another one of these.”

Sen. Jim Bolin, a Republican from Canton, shared Schoenbeck’s lack of enthusiasm.

“You’re going to raise peoples’ expectations and not really accomplish anything significant.” The Executive Board voted 10-5 to take on the property tax assessment study.

Summer studies should, as Sen. Bolin suggested, accomplish something significant. There are other areas where the Legislature should put its efforts for the betterment of South Dakota.

One would be a study of education on state Native American reservations. A South Dakota Searchlight story, quoting Department of Education statistics, says that absenteeism among the state’s Native American students increased from 31% to 54% from 2018 to 2023. A third of Native American students don’t complete high school, 84% are not considered college ready and only 7% take the ACT.

Add that to the prevalence of illegal drugs and the rampant poverty, and there is surely something there that could keep a legislative committee busy through the summer. The Executive Committee was working off a list of potential summer study subjects submitted by lawmakers. Of the 21 potential subjects, none of them dealt with Native American issues. That’s a sure sign of the disconnect between the Legislature and the state’s nine tribes.

During the Executive Committee meeting, Schoenbeck explained that summer studies are used to educate lawmakers on a particular subject or provide them with a background for policy issues they will face in the next session. In that case, lawmakers would do well to set aside a summer study for a look at the policies needed for ballot issues to cut the state sales tax on groceries and legalize recreational marijuana.

That study could determine how to massage the language in the grocery tax cut ballot initiative in two areas of concern to the attorney general. There needs to be a plan to change its language so it doesn’t endanger a settlement with major cigarette manufacturers, which pays the state an annual $20 million. The way it is written may also jeopardize the streamlined sales tax agreement that allows South Dakota to collect sales taxes on online purchases. Those would seem to be important policy issues worthy of study.

Recreational marijuana was approved by this state’s voters in 2020, only to be overturned by a court ruling. Voters defeated another attempt to legalize marijuana in 2022. It’s hard to predict what voters will say this November, but it’s apparent that this issue isn’t going away. The current ballot initiative doesn’t say how stores would be licensed, or the cost for that license. Lawmakers need to consider how recreational marijuana would be taxed, a potential windfall for the state.

One area that could certainly use a windfall is education funding. The recently completed legislative session saw schools saddled with a minimum $45,000 salary for teachers with no additional funding to help them reach that level.

One of the proposed summer studies, offered by Rep. Carl Perry, a Republican from Aberdeen, offered to look at the school funding system. That’s certainly an area worthy of study, as teacher salaries in this state are an embarrassment, mired at 49th in national rankings.

Any of these would be better choices for a summer study rather than trying to figure out how state government can regulate something as unwieldy as the internet or taking on a study that will needlessly raise expectations about lowering property taxes.