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State House hopefuls focus on budget at public forum

State representative candidate Tona Rozum, right, answers a question about the state budget while other candidates, Lance Carson, center, and Becky Haslam, left, listen during Tuesday night's forum, sponsored by the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce. The forum, which took place at the Mitchell Technical Institute amphitheater, gave candidates a chance to field questions from media and community members. (Chris Huber/Republic Photo)

State budget issues topped a discussion Tuesday night between the three candidates for two seats in the state House representing District 20.

State Rep. Lance Carson, R-Mitchell, fellow Republican candidate Tona Rozum and independent candidate Becky Haslam fielded questions and offered their views on a variety of subjects during a forum sponsored by the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee.

About 75 people attended the two-hour forum, which included discussions of the county auditor's race and the city of Mitchell land designation vote on Nov. 2.

All three state House candidates said they are unsure what can be done to deal with the looming state budget deficit, which may be as much as $100 million. But all candidates expressed reservations or opposition to cutting education.

"I believe we are going to have to cut programs," Carson said.

But he does not favor across-the-board cuts. The state did a good job not dipping into reserve funds this past session but may be forced to do so in 2011, he said.

Rozum said she favors switching to a two-year budget process to improve planning.

She also proposed emulating private businesses that have employees take a half day or full day off without pay once a week.

Haslam said she thinks the executive department should be targeted for cuts. She said executive pay, bonuses and the state's fleet of airplanes made available to the governor and his staff seems wasteful.

The candidates said while cuts will have to be made in the 2011 session, they feel education spending needs to be left alone.

"I don't think we can cut education," Rozum said. "Those kids are our future. Education is our future."

Haslam echoed that. Education needs to be off the table, in her view.

"It's our most important aspect of our state," she said of education.

Carson pointed out that K-12 education receives 38.2 percent of the state's budget, health and human services receive 35 percent and higher education and corrections also take major slices from the state's fiscal pie.

"Budget cuts are going to be very hard," he said.

All three said they are opposed to forced unification of small school districts to save money.

Haslam said she has learned that students in small districts love their educational environment. "They like it there and they learn," she said.

"Small communities are the heart and soul of South Dakota," Rozum said. "It's what we stand for."

Carson, who attended Rutland schools, said small school districts are important to the state and District 20.

They said the new healthcare law was a good idea that has been poorly executed.

"What was the federal government thinking when it developed health care for us?" Carson asked rhetorically.

He termed the new law "a sham at best."

Haslam said she felt the country needed health-care reform, but it wasn't delivered in the proper way.

All three said they favor increasing license-plate fees. It could be a way to help rebuild and repair the state's ailing roads.

An increased wheel tax to repair local roads is also worth discussing, they said, but Carson said citizens, while asking for better roads, seem unwilling to pay for them through higher fees.

"I don't quite understand what the people of South Dakota want," he said, adding roads are a form of economic development.

Rozum said it seems like an idea worth exploring.

"I like looking at it," she said, noting that state Sen. Mike Vehle, who was in the audience, had researched the issue in Pierre.

"The fact is that a wheel tax is a use tax," she said. But she said ag vehicles that aren't on the road may deserve an exemption.

All three said they are opposed to abortion and stem- cell research, but they also said they are uncomfortable with government intrusion on private lives. The candidates also discussed when life begins after being asked that from the audience. Haslam and Carson both said life begins at conception, and Rozum said life begins when the egg implants in the uterine lining and takes nourishment, sometime around two weeks post-coitus.

They also agreed on the role of religion in government, saying they agree with the traditional role of separation of church and faith.

Daryl Kilstrom, of the Chamber committee, served as moderator.

Next Tuesday's forum will feature a discussion between the three candidates for the District 20 state Senate seat -- state Sen. Mike Vehle, RMitchell; Democratic candidate Susan Thie; and independent candidate Steve "Sibby" Sibson -- as well as a discussion on the proposed legalization of the off-sale of hard liquor on Sundays in Mitchell.

Mayor Lou Sebert will speak in favor of the liquor proposal and Councilman Mel Olson will speak against it. The forum will be held at the Mitchell Technical Institute Technology Center Amphitheater, 1800 E. Spruce St. It will start at 7 p.m.

The Daily Republic has Tuesday's forum available at and will show next week's forum live and also archive it on the website.