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WOSTER: Divided Legislature of '70s worked through disagreements for state’s sake

Terry Woster, Daily Republic Columnist  Forty years ago, the South Dakota Legislature was in its second year of dealing with a House and Senate controlled by the Democrats.

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Control is a term I apply as hesitantly to the political make-up of the two houses as House Speaker Gene Lebrun, a Democrat, used it to apply his authority over his chamber of the Legislature. The Senate had 18 Democrats and 17 Republicans, you’ll remember. The House had 35 members of each party. Well, that’s a tie if they all vote together in each party, you say. Well, yes, yes it sure is. Lebrun knew that better than anyone else.

Because Democrat Gov. Richard Kneip was in office, his party had the power to organize, appoint committee chairs and membership and do a number of other things the majority party gets to do every session. When it came to voting on things, though, well, 35-35 just doesn’t give the speaker a high comfort level.

Things worked, for the most part, although there were some fierce political skirmishes over the hot-button items, like income taxes and such. When it came to a number of long-range, visionary kinds of things for South Dakota, though, the evenly divided houses seemed to argue their way through it. In those days, as a wire service reporter, I don’t recall ever hearing a legislator say to another, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” If they disagreed, nothing happened. Legislators were more likely to say to each other, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to figure out a way to agree.”

One of the things that won agreement four decades ago, after much conversation and convincing, was the creation of a four-year, degree-granting medical school. At the time, the University of South Dakota offered a two-year medical program. Prospective doctors who completed the two years at the Vermillion school had to find a medical school in another state to complete their degree. That apparently had worked for quite some time — nearly 70 years I recall reading in one history of the med school.

By the 1970s, slots in other states’ medical schools were becoming more and more difficult to find and capture. I remember hearing that argument dozens of times during the course of the debate to sell the four-year medical school. Skeptics suggested that the proponents were exaggerating the problem to because they wanted the prestige of a degree-granting medical program. Advocates said they were understating, if anything, and the issue would only continue to grow, because more and more states were reserving more and more slots for their own growing population of medical students.

Some studies at the time projected a looming shortage of medical doctors in South Dakota, particularly in the smaller communities. Part of the reason, advocates of the medical school said, was that when students finished their two years at USD and moved on to another state to receive their degrees, they often stayed in that state. It was a bit like being a baseball farm team.

(Remember those days so long ago when the Kansas City Athletics made so many trades to the New York Yankees people called them a farm club? Harsh, maybe, but, hey, trading Roger Maris, Clete Boyer and Ralph Terry for guys like Jerry Lumpe did seem a bit one-sided.)

Advocates finally sold the deal, promising that the curriculum would stress family medicine. The 1974 Legislature gave its approval, and USD joined the world of four-year medical schools. South Dakota as a state, in the deal, joined the world of states with a medical school. The first new doctors of medicine walked out of the school in the spring of 1977.

It would be easy to look back and wonder how in the world such a major proposal ever worked its way to completion with such a closely divided Legislature. I might do that except for something former Gov. Harvey Wollman once told me. He was a Senate leader in 1974, and he told me years later that there was no other realistic choice. It was just a matter, Wollman said, of keeping the conversation going until people were convinced of that.