Capitol Jacks: SDSU campus unites lawmakers, students

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

Students can trust Brookings legislators will understand SDSU’s needs as they work through the 85th legislative session these next few months.

Two of Brookings’ legislators – Sen. Pam Merchant and Rep. Carol Pitts – are currently working toward degrees at SDSU, while the other, Rep. Larry Tidemann, received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees here in the 1970s. What’s more, all three have worked at SDSU at one point in their careers.

“To be currently in the system gives you a different perspective because you are more into the everyday than just from a distance,” said Pitts, who is currently pursuing a doctorate.

The Brookings Republican also received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from State. Three of her children graduated from SDSU, and another son is now working on his master’s degree here. From 1990 to 2002, Pitts worked for SDSU as a Nutrition, Health and Food Safety Specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service.

With all these ties, Pitts said she has become aware of students’ needs over the years. As a current student, she, too, is conscious of tuition and book costs and she notices things students could use when on campus.

“Just like other students, I can get territorial about things I would like to see for us as students,” she said.

For Merchant, she said much of her coursework has directly affected her as a legislator. She began taking political science classes at SDSU in 2008. Those classes took on additional meaning that November when she was elected to the state Senate.

“I was able to imagine how the process would work that much easier,” she said.

Ever since Merchant began her legislative term in 2009, she said her roles as a legislator and a student have gone hand in hand. Through sociology classes, she has learned more about rural situations and has developed an “intense love of community development.” One of her political science classes required her to research social issues each week, which made her more “acutely aware” of local social problems, she said.

“It was a springboard,” she said. “Now I can apply that research to real situations.”

Even before she became a student, Merchant was connected to campus. Merchant, who worked as a graphic designer for about 20 years, designed the first SDSU Web site 13 years ago. She got to know a lot of campus officials and buildings during her employment with University Relations, she said.

“I’ve never had that much distance from campus, but I’m that much closer now because I’m physically here,” she said.

Between the three legislators, Tidemann wins the title of longest-serving employee at SDSU. Before retiring, Tidemann worked for 33 years with the South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service, serving his last six years as director and also the associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences.

The Republican said his work with the extension office has helped him in the Legislature by teaching him to identify and assess people’s needs.

“I worked to find what their needs were and to identify education programs to help them attain those,” he said.

As appropriations chairman for the House and the joint appropriations co-chairman, Tidemann will use his needs assessment skills throughout the legislative session. The state is facing a budget shortfall, and Tidemann said money will be tight in the budgeting process for everyone, including SDSU.

The representative compared the situation to a couple that does not have enough money to give each of their six children a Christmas present. Tidemann said the couple would not give a few children presents but leave the others out. They would treat each child “very much alike.”

“We all have to work together through this tough situation,” he said.

One cut Tidemann would not like to see is a reduction of employees at SDSU. As for Merchant, she said she would like to see a cost-of-living salary increase for state employees.

“The state needs to provide a cost of living increase so people can potentially cover costs for utility and health insurance increases,” she said.

For these issues and all others facing state government this legislative session, the Brookings legislators requested input from their constituents, including students.

“This is a citizen-run Legislature, and we appreciate getting input,” Tidemann said.

Pitts agreed. “Legislators look very positively towards students and their thoughts and comments.”