District 19 candidates pan education billGeneral feeling was strong among all candidates that the state needs to do more to support education, small businesses and farmers and must do less to support larger corporations and projects that do not need additional financial backing.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
TYNDALL — District 19 legislative candidates expressed disapproval of the governor’s education reforms and displayed differences regarding their opinions on term limits Thursday at the Tyndall Community Center during one of the general election season’s first debates.
About 25 voters turned out to get an early look at the legislative hopefuls.
The debate, which featured state Senate and House of Representatives candidates, was sponsored by the Bon Homme County Farmers Union and was moderated by Farmers Union District 1 Director Terry Sestak.
General feeling was strong among all candidates that the state needs to do more to support education, small businesses and farmers and must do less to support larger corporations and projects that do not need additional financial backing.
The event pitted Senate candidate Frank Kloucek, D-Scotland, against Republican Bill Van Gerpen, of Tyndall. Kloucek is currently a member of the House and Van Gerpen is a former legislator.
In the race for two District 19 House seats, Democratic challenger Alan Fenner, D-Menno, debated Dist. 19 incumbent Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, and Republican newcomer Kyle Schoenfish, of Scotland. Nelson and Schoenfish were the top vote-getters in the June 5 Republican primary election for the House, knocking off long-time South Dakota legislator Sen. Jim Putnam, R-Armour, and Roger Hofer, of Bridgewater.
In pre-debate communications with the candidates, Sestak said he told them they would be asked their views on the adequacy of K-12 funding for education and whether House Bill 1234 should be passed or defeated by voters in November.
HB 1234 will be on the fall ballot as Referred Law 16. The law establishes a teacher scholarship program; creates a program for math and science teacher bonuses; creates a program for teacher merit bonuses; mandates a uniform teacher and principal evaluation system; and eliminates teacher tenure.
In quick succession, all candidates panned the law as being divisive and harmful to education in South Dakota and urged voters to reject it this fall.
Fenner said of the bill, “It can’t work in my opinion, and I strongly oppose it.” He predicted it would chase badly needed teachers from the state.
Van Gerpen said, “Education should be community and not competitive,” and the divisive nature of the legislation would create “chaos and tension” and make it difficult to focus on the true mission of education.
Schoenfish said the state needs to collaborate with teachers. He said that he also is opposed to ending teacher tenure since means are already available for removing poor teachers.
“South Dakota ranks last in teacher pay and it would still rank last with the bonuses,” he continued. He recommended keeping class sizes smaller and repealing the sales tax on food so that children could have the benefit of better nutrition to help their ability to learn.
Of HB 1234 Nelson said, “I voted against that monstrosity.” The law does not fit with his concept of Republicanism, said Nelson, which is a philosophy that favors parental and local control of education.
“You decide what’s best for your kid,” he said, adding, “HB 1234 is a bad bill.” Kloucek predicted HB 1234’s structure would fail a strict constitutional test. Beyond the mechanics of its structure, however, he said the bill would create divisions. Given two good teachers eligible for bonuses, he asked rhetorically, “ Who gets the bonus?” He predicted “our best teachers would leave.” Referred Law 14 was also criticized. It would capture 22 percent of contractors’ excise tax funds to create a Large Project Development Fund from which grants would be issued to economic development projects with a cost exceeding $5 million.
Kloucek and others wondered how the projects could be chosen fairly.
“It’s a regressive and unfair tax,” said Kloucek, “and one that would put money toward large corporate projects. It would not only pick winners and losers, but would subsidize the winners. Vote no.” Fenner also urged a “no” vote. What the state truly needs, he said, is economic development for smaller projects.
Nelson said that as a freshman legislator he regretted voting for House Bill 1230, which set up the program, and he urged voters to dismantle the project.
“Government does not make productivity and this would create another bureaucracy to consume your money. Government should not be involved in picking winners and losers.”
Schoenfish said he is not a fan, either. By preferring one project or another, he said, said the bill hampers business development.
“It’s a game of musical chairs with tax dollars,” he said. Instead, the money, he said, should be used to help new businesses.
Van Gerpen said the program was originally intended to return money to local areas, which is good, but more ways need to be found to enhance and support agriculture in the state.
There was a difference of opinion on term limits. Legislators are currently limited to eight years in one house but can jump to the other house.
Schoenfish said, “Eight years is enough.” He also did not agree with jumping between houses as a way to remain in the Legislature.
Nelson drew a laugh as he aimed his comments toward Kloucek, who has served multiple terms in the House and the Senate.
“Our Founding Fathers didn’t envision sitting in office for a lifetime,” he said. “Eight years in a particular office is enough.” Kloucek called term limits the “ugly stepsister of government.” But he said the decision to allow a legislator to move back and forth between houses should be the decision of the people. He said term limits have hurt Pierre, where experienced lobbyists often take advantage of inexperienced legislators.
He said he would consider term limits but disagreed with limiting legislators from moving between houses.
Fenner said he is opposed to mandatory term limits.
Van Gerpen said he supports term limits because incumbents have an unfair advantage over potential candidates seeking office. He also does not believe in flipflopping between houses. Without term limits, people are being shut out of the possibility to serve their state, he said.
“We have people who want to serve who don’t get that opportunity.” If nationally applied, Van Gerpen said strict term limits “would change the direction of our nation.”
No candidate was satisfied with the direction of funding for education, but Nelson said that a closer look needs to be taken at the funding formula. “Some areas need increases, and others are doing fine.” Kloucek called education funding “ a never-ending question” and said a better way needs to be found to fund education and that education must be more highly valued. “We have put education not on a pedestal, but a step stool,” he said.
Fenner said the state does not fund education adequately. “We have millions in trust funds and reserves we need to consider using.” He said the lack of consistent funding is creating uncertainty in the educational community.
Van Gerpen said, “It really isn’t the dollars. We need to ask a more basic question; namely, ‘What is a good education?’” He said the state needs to focus on preparing young people for life.
Schoenfish said education is not adequately funded. He said better funding measures are needed, such as the implementation of online sales taxes that would bring in $60 million for potential use by education.