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Vehle, Carson, Rozum have their minds on state's bottom line as session begins

The three legislators from Mitchell say balancing the state budget will be the primary job during the 2011 legislative session.

The session opens at noon today for the first of 38 scheduled work days.

Sen. Mike Vehle and Reps. Lance Carson and Tona Rozum are among the 105 legislators -- 35 senators and 70 representatives -- who will discuss and debate state government for the next three months.

Vehle, Carson and Rozum are all Republicans. They represent District 20, which consists of Aurora and Davison counties.

Vehle, who is entering his second term in the Senate after serving two in the House, said he felt Gov. Dennis Daugaard sounded the correct message when he called for fiscal prudence during his inaugural address Saturday.

Daugaard called for the state to rely on its tradition of self-reliance, persistence, determination and frugality.

"I thought he nailed it," Vehle said. "There has to be some cuts somewhere. There's actually going to be tough times now."

Projections on the deficit for the 2012 fiscal year range up to $100 million. The fiscal year runs July 1 to June 30.

"I think there's going to be a lot of reductions," Vehle said. "I don't know if it's going to be across the board. I think there's going to be shared pain by everyone."

The state needs to find "long-term savings," including possibly a reduction in state employees or asking a state department to take on extra duties, he said. Other options that would save money should be considered as well, Vehle said.

"I think you should be looking at long-term efficiencies," he said. "We won't know the full process on that until the first part of March, until the Appropriations Committee reports."

He said he only favors using about 20 percent of the state's reserves to cover the budget gap. Instead, he thinks state must look at cuts and finding new forms of revenue to keep the ship afloat financially.

"You've got to be careful when you use reserve funds, because those are one-time funds," Vehle said. "You've got to have ongoing revenue for ongoing expenses. It's like paying your mortgage out of your savings account."

He has proposed a series of increases in the state gas tax and the fee for licensing vehicles in the state. Vehle tried to get those increases approved during the last session.

"Same bill. We'll just see how it goes," he said. "We might write in deferred dates to see how that goes, make it more palatable.

"I think a lot of people are acknowledging we have an issue but at this point they don't want to be a part of raising any fee or tax," Vehle said.

"Deferred implementation may work," he said. "A good share of people are concerned and realize we are just kicking the can down the road."

Vehle said the Legislature will assuredly have some spirited debates this winter. "It is going to be an interesting session," he said. Carson, who is starting his third term in the House, said he expects "quite a few" issues to surface in Pierre. The budget, a texting ban and "bills of consequence on how business is done at the state level" will be introduced and strongly considered, he said

"I think we'll see some changes in how the state

business overall," he said. "I don't think it will be business as usual."

He said the budget gap maybe larger than people have heard.

"I think we're going to be happy to have 105 legislators having some input on this," Carson said. "It's a crisis. I think we'll get some more input on this."

He said legislators may be reluctant to consider raising taxes to deal with the shortfall.

"I have not seen or heard anything about raising taxes," Carson said.

He said he has spoken with current and former legislators and asked them if they felt a desire by South Dakotans for tax increases.

"Nobody was too excited about it," Carson said. "They wanted to listen to what the people said. They want to look at cuts."

He said Vehle's proposal to raise fees for license plates has some merit. Carson said he recently looked at the cost of licensing two vehicles and noted how inexpensive the cost was for that.

"I think the license plate fees need to go up," he said. "The nice thing is that most of that comes right back, come to the counties."

He said the fact that the price of gasoline jumped 30 cents this winter may slow the effort to raise the state gas tax.

Carson said he predicts a bill on migrant workers in the state will be introduced in an effort to crack down on illegal residents.

He also said legislators will keep a close eye on a state Supreme Court case on nonresidents being allowed to have concealed weapon permits. That could entice a lawmaker to introduce a bill, he said.

"I think we'll see that," Carson said. "I think someone will bring legislation forward one way or the other."

He hasn't crafted any bills for this session.

"Right now I have nothing on my plate to introduce," Carson said. "I have a couple veterans' issues.

"I will see if there is support for going to one license plate rather than two on vehicles," he said. "Maybe I can bring it around and get some support for it."

Carson will serve as vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Government Operations and Audit Committee, which he said will add to his workload. Rozum is a member of the Taxation and Transportation committees, and Vehle is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and also serves on the Judiciary and Agriculture and Natural Resources committees.

Today will be Rozum's first as a legislator. She said one word will describe the focus of the 2011 session: budget.

Rozum said she's not sure what the answer is to the state's budget gap and wants to learn what others have to say before she announces her views.

"I have a lot of ideas, but I have to wait for Daugaard and hear his ... address and hear his budget address," she said.

While budget cuts will surely be discussed, Rozum said new forms of revenue need to at least be on the table.

"I have talked to a lot of people, constituents, and there seems to be positive feelings for potential increase in state sales tax," she said. "That's a few people, maybe two dozen people, so we will have to see."

She said Vehle's plan to hike the gas tax and license plate fees seems to make sense.

"We have to do something in order to maintain our roads," Rozum said. "I think it's a given."

She has placed one bill in the hopper on clarifying language on harassing phone calls and what devices are used.

"I'd say it's more of a housekeeping bill," Rozum said.

She said she also expects to see bills asking for a ban on texting and driving and another prohibiting the use of handheld devices while driving.

Although Rozum served nine years on the Mitchell City Council, she said joining the Legislature will be an adjustment.

"Straight up," she said. "I served on the council, but there you're dealing with eight people and one mayor. This is a huge group of people to come to consensus with."

But Rozum said she hopes partisan politics don't become a factor during the session.

"I'm not sure we need to be political," she said. "I'm sure we don't need to be political."