Ballot issues seen as referendum on governorThree ballot questions are from opponents of Daugaard’s key initiatives.
By: Chet Brokaw, The Associated Press
PIERRE — When South Dakota voters express their opinions on issues ranging from a sales tax increase to merit pay for teachers on Nov. 6, their votes also will serve as a referendum on Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s first two years in office.
Daugaard proposed one of the four top ballot issue questions. The other three were put on the ballot by opponents of several of his key initiatives.
The Republican governor is using money left over from his campaign fund to send supporters a postcard explaining his stand on all the issues. He hopes voters pass every ballot issue except a proposed sales tax increase.
“I’m letting them know how I’m going to vote in case they’re interested,” he said.
Here’s a look at the proposals:
One of the first things Daugaard did when he took office in January 2011 was propose state spending cuts to balance the budget. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved deep reductions in areas including aid to school districts and payments to Medicaid providers.
In response, organizations representing teachers and health care facilities collected enough signatures to propose a 1-cent sales tax increase that would boost the state’s rate from 4 percent to 5 percent on Jan. 1. The tax increase would raise an estimated $180 million a year to be split between school districts and the program that pays the medical expenses of poor people.
Daugaard said teachers and health care providers have not proven they need the extra money.
School aid and Medicaid spending were cut by $77 million last year, but $18 million was restored this year. That means $59 million remains to be restored, but the proposed tax increase would provide three times that amount of money, the governor said.
“It would be the largest tax increase in history,” he said, adding that he would rather boost state revenue through economic growth.
Sandy Arseneault, president of the South Dakota Education Association, the state’s main teachers union, challenged the governor’s math, saying it ignores the effect of a freeze in education aid the year before the cut.
“This funding really doesn’t even bring us back to where we should be,” Arseneault said.
Teacher merit pay
Daugaard also proposed an education reform plan that would give bonuses to top teachers, phase out tenure and recruit more teachers for critical jobs in math, science and other fields. He said it would improve student achievement by ensuring classrooms had top-notch teachers.
The teachers union contended it could hurt the quality of education because teachers might stop collaborating as they competed for bonus money. After the Legislature narrowly passed a modified version of the governor’s plan, the union collected signatures to put it on the ballot.
The version voters will consider includes the governor’s original plan to give $5,000 annual bonuses to the top 20 percent of teachers in each district, beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. The bonuses would be based on a new evaluation system.
However, lawmakers also gave districts the ability to create their own teacher reward plans or opt out altogether.
The bill also would start a scholarship program next year to help college students pursuing teaching degrees in the most-needed subjects. It would give $2,500 annual rewards to qualified math and science teachers beginning in 2014.
“I’m hopeful the voting public will see this as a step forward to increasing student achievement,” Daugaard said.
But Arseneault said merit pay for teachers has never worked, and the state should instead seek to improve all good teachers.
“I don’t want just a few children to have a great teacher in the classroom,” she said. “I want all of our children to have a great teacher.”
The state Democratic Party collected signatures to force a public vote on Daugaard’s law creating a new program that would give incentive grants for large construction grants. The program is aimed at getting businesses to expand or move to South Dakota.
For years, the state refunded construction taxes for big industrial projects, but that program expires at the end of this year.
Daugaard’s replacement plan would take 22 percent of the receipts from the contractor’s excise tax and put the money into a fund that a state board could use for incentive grants. The governor said that would allow the board to limit grants to companies that would not otherwise build in South Dakota.
Democrats said the estimated $16 million a year earmarked for the program would be better spent on schools and other priorities.
Voters also will have the final say on Daugaard’s proposed constitutional amendment to require a balanced state budget.
The South Dakota Constitution now has provisions limiting state debt and providing for an emergency tax to wipe out any deficit. Daugaard says that shows a balanced budget is intended, but the language is imprecise. His amendment says the governor must propose and the Legislature must pass a budget in which spending does not exceed anticipated revenues and other available funds.
Opponents contend the amendment is not needed and could encourage overly optimistic revenue estimates that lead to deficits.
The Legislature has proposed three additional constitutional amendments that would revise provisions related to corporations, increase reimbursements for lawmakers’ mileage during their first and last trips to the Capitol during each legislative session, and revise the distribution of money from a trust fund set up with the proceeds of the 2001 sale of the state cement plant.