Budget cuts pushed Wismer to challenge gov
Editor’s note: This is the fi rst of two profiles on the Democratic candidates running in the June 3 primary. There will also be two profiles of the Republican candidates running the in primary.
When Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard pushed through dramatic budget cuts during his first months in office in 2011, he inspired a Democratic lawmaker with a family pedigree to challenge him in his re-election bid this year.
Three-term state Rep. Susan Wismer, D-Britton, said not only did she disagree with Daugaard’s 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts, but she also disagreed with his administration’s message that it was the only course of action available to state leaders.
“They convinced good, moderate Republican legislators that we had no choice, and we did have a choice. I thought it was very wrong,” Wismer said of the plan to account for $127 million more in projected state expenses than project state revenue. “Democrats just could not serve the people and not respond with a credible candidate to challenge the decisions that were made.”
When asked how she would have dealt with the budget shortfall, Wismer doesn’t offer a detailed plan but said she would have prioritized areas such as education and would not have padded line items reliant on federal funds such as Medicaid. And she says she would have restored more robust funding to them once the budget bounced back.
“We cut $127 million in general funds. By the time the year was over — between underbudgeting our revenue and overbudgeting in Medicaid — we had that $127 million,” she said. “He redistributed back to other priorities before making education and Medicaid whole. A much smaller percentage of that new money went back to education and Medicaid.”
The 58-year-old accountant grew up in Britton and returned to her hometown to raise her three children — now grown — near her extended family. She earned a degree in English from Augustana College in 1978 and taught English for a year before she and her husband, Mark, moved to Washington for his work as an electrical engineer. There, she took additional courses to earn her accounting degree. Since returning to Britton, Wismer has worked with a sister as co-owners of Britton Bookkeeping and Tax Service. She is the granddaughter of former state lawmaker Art Jones and the niece of another former lawmaker, Curt Jones. As an accountant, her tenure on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee was a natural fi t. But Wismer said accounting and budgets isn’t truly about numbers in state government, it’s about people and policy.
“A lot of people think of money issues as boring things, but Pierre is where decisions are made about how much we pay our teachers and whether or not our nurse’s aides qualify for welfare because we don’t pay them well enough,” she said. “Those things affect as many people as environmental issues or the death penalty.”
She said she wishes voters who focus on single issues would consider broader policy questions when thinking about politics and elections.
“On the Republican side, there are always those single-issue voters that I find so frustrating, whether it’s guns or anti-choice. Democrats have their single issues, too,” she said. “They inhibit us from addressing our overall economic issues.”
Since Wismer began serving in the Legislature in 2009, she been prime sponsor of just a handful of bills during all her years in office. Most of those have been narrowly drawn, focusing on arcane matters such as disposal of surplus property.
Her biggest splash came in 2013 when she carried a bill to raise the state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent. That bill died after it’s first committee hearing on a 12-3 vote, mostly along party lines.
Wismer said she knew such a bill had almost no chance of passing in today’s South Dakota Legislature, but she said would have funneled much of the additional revenue to education.
“When people ask me what I would do for education, I say I would change the conversation and change our priorities. I couldn’t work miracles but at least education would have an advocate,” she said, calling South Dakota teacher pay “still far from 50th” place nationwide.
In her campaign, Wismer said she hopes to provide alternative ideas to South Dakota’s 35-year streak of Republican political leadership in Pierre.
“Competition is good for business, and competition of ideas is good for state government. South Dakota hasn’t had that for a long time,” she said. “There are ill effects to two generations of one-party control.”