$2.7 billion budget plan passes despite Democratic opposition

Susan Smith

Susan Smith

PIERRE (CNS) – The South Dakota Legislature passed a $2.7 billion budget on March 8 that some said was argued about mostly behind closed doors and without the input of Democrats that sit on the Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers voted on a balanced budget, but at least in the Senate they didn’t do it without some opposition.

Sen. Paul Symens, D-Amherst, who is a past Appropriations Committee chairman, argued that the general budget bill could have been delivered to the House and Senate floors earlier than the last day – it was when he ran the committee.

“It’s no wonder people out there in the state wonder what in the devil is going on in Pierre,” he said.

Symens said getting the bill at the last minute gave lawmakers no time for review before voting.

“Most members of the body should be voting no on it because they don’t know what’s in it,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this thing stinks. It stinks to high heaven.”

Sen. Jerry Apa, R-Lead, said he sympathized with Symens.

“I don’t blame him for being upset,” he said. “We’re pushing the clock. There were too many loggerheads all over the place.”

The Appropriations Committee meets and hears reports from state departments and agencies and also testimony on spending bills throughout the session. Apa said Republican and Democrat Appropriations Committee members also meet separately and that’s part of the political process. They both can bring their own amendments to the general bill.

“That’s how we do it, we both have different agendas,” he said. “You don’t lay your cards on the table. Politics don’t work that way.”

One new member of the Appropriations Committee was disappointed with the lack of input her caucus had in discussions.

Rep. Julie Bartling, D-Burke, said she would have liked to discuss areas Republicans were concerned with rather than having the budget “thrown at us basically in the form of amendments.”

“I just don’t think that’s a real straightforward, open way to handle it when we’re dealing with a state budget of this size,” she said.

“I don’t feel I’m a real part of the whole process and I’m just a little discouraged by that.”

Lawmakers argued most of the session on whether to raise taxes on cigarettes 30 or 20 cents per pack. They also disagreed on whether to tax smokeless tobacco products. Legislators finally agreed on the 20-cent version that didn’t include increasing taxes on products like chewing tobacco.

Gov. Mike Rounds also wanted a three percent pay raise for state employees because he says he’s going to ask a lot of them in the coming year, which means they’ll be responsible for helping him find ways to trim state spending. But lawmakers balked at that plan in a year when it was projected they would have a $54 million shortfall in funds. They ended up giving state employees a two-percent raise.

Those two fights held up formal discussion on the budget until about 1 p.m. on March 8, the last day of the session’s main run. When appropriators sat down to hash out budget details there were about 40 amendments on the table.

“In the last minute, changes are happening,” Rep. Jim Putnam, R-Armour, said.

The Senate passed the bill 26-8. The House passed it 69-0.