HUNHOFF: Frugality as a vice - state surplus too much of a good thingWe’ve balanced our budgets in South Dakota since statehood. That’s 123 straight years. And in recent years we haven’t even come close to being in the red. State government is awash in cash.
By: Bernie Hunhoff , Guest columnist
A recent Daily Republic editorial proclaimed “good news” that our state finished the fiscal year with a $47 million surplus. Yes, $47 million is good, but there’s no news there.
We’ve balanced our budgets in South Dakota since statehood. That’s 123 straight years. And in recent years we haven’t even come close to being in the red. State government is awash in cash. We now have $134 million in official reserves, plus another $725 million in trust funds and as of right now it looks like we could see millions more in surplus for the current fiscal year.
Remember, news happens when a man bites a dog. News is when we don’t balance the budget. Our state constitution requires it.
The real news is this latest confirmation that we unnecessarily slashed school spending by $52 million, and when the federal government sent $26 million the Pierre bureaucracy kept that in their own coffers. Then we slashed spending for children’s health programs, nursing homes and hospitals.
Frugality is a virtue. But we’ve taken it to the extreme in South Dakota. At some point it becomes a vice — like a well-to-do father who won’t buy shoes for his kids.
Despite a guise of frugality, the current administration has started a litany of new programs — many of them for big corporations. One example is the Manpower program that will spend $5 million to help a few companies recruit workers from out-of-state. That’s what often happens with exorbitant surpluses: they are reclassified as one-time monies and then spent in areas that are low priority, if necessary at all. Thus, frugality turns into waste.
Meanwhile, state government’s share of education spending has dropped precipitously over the last decade, and is now the lowest in the nation in relation to local spending from property taxes. The 49 other state governments contribute an average of 43 percent of their schools’ budgets. In South Dakota, the state’s share has dropped below 30 percent — lowest in the nation — yet we have hundreds of millions in trust funds, excess cash accounts and reserves.
The age-old line from the Pierre bureaucracy is that we dare not risk an adequate investment in education because disaster could be lurking — a flood, a forest fire, beetles, drought or recession. But our penny-pinching has caused a disaster for schools, for property taxpayers in South Dakota and for many community health care facilities.
Your editorial board accused me of playing politics with the “good” budget news this week. I suppose anything can be construed as politics — giving your wife flowers on her birthday, for example. But the only reason many of us are even involved in politics is because we want to improve the lives of South Dakotans.
Is your life better because the state salted away tens of millions of your tax dollars rather than making smart investments in health care and education and keeping property taxes down?
Bernie Hunhoff, a Democrat from Yankton, is the state House minority leader.