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Lawmakers say 2009 session all about tough choices, compromise

Cuts are tough and there simply isn't a "whole lot of fluff" in this year's state budget, state Sen. Mike Vehle said this week. Because of that, it's likely that few South Dakotans will be entirely satisfied with the budget efforts of this year's...

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Lance Carson, R-Mitchell, sits on the house floor waiting for the Governor's State of the State Address in January. A legislative cracker barrel will start at 10 a.m. Saturday at Mitchell Technical Institute's Capital Street campus cafeteria. (Laura Wehde/Republic Photo)

Cuts are tough and there simply isn't a "whole lot of fluff" in this year's state budget, state Sen. Mike Vehle said this week.

Because of that, it's likely that few South Dakotans will be entirely satisfied with the budget efforts of this year's legislative session, he said.

"I think we're making headway," said Vehle, R-Mitchell. "But the one thing I can tell you is that no one is going to be completely happy with the session."

Budget talks likely will be among the many items of discussion during a legislative cracker barrel discussion Saturday in Mitchell, the second such event of the session. The meeting will begin at 10 a.m. in the cafeteria of Mitchell Technical Institute's Capital Street campus.

Along with Vehle, Reps. Lance Carson and Noel Hamiel also plan to attend. All are Republicans from Mitchell.

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Carson characterized this year's legislative session as one of solid bipartisan cooperation. Vehle also gave the Gov. Mike Rounds administration kudos for an increased level of cooperation and openness, but said the last-second budget -- heavy with cuts -- submitted by Rounds has slowed things somewhat.

But the budget is hardly the only subject of controversy this year in Pierre.

A revived smoking ban -- which would ban smoking in bars and restaurants -- was still the buzz at the capital during the past week, said Vehle and Carson. All three Mitchell legislators have previously declared their opposition to the measure, but Vehle believes determined anti-tobacco factions have a good shot of pulling off a victory.

Carson said he is most proud of the headway made to save the farm and ranch management program taught by MTI agricultural instructors Calvin Pietz and Roger DeRouchey. The program serves nearly 100 area farms, compiles grassroots marketing data and teaches efficient management practices. Carson is the lead sponsor of HB1142 that will, if passed, appropriate up to $110,000 to sustain the program.

"We reduced the funding to $1 to keep the bill moving and we hope to reinstate the funding on the Senate side," he said. If sufficient money can be found the program may be expanded to western South Dakota. "But we've got to get the bill through first."

Hamiel said he feels good about defeating legislation that would have removed the control of the state's four technical schools from local school boards and given it to the state Board of Education. He said the next challenge will be to find more funding for the tech schools.

New talent abounds in the current session and the House's 35 rookie representatives are doing a good job, said Carson.

"They're a great class of people and they come to town willing to work," he said. "They're asking a lot of the right questions."

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Hamiel said the learning curve is steep for rookies and he learned that testimony offered in committees is an immense help to legislators.

"We've also killed a lot of bills and for the most part, that's a good thing," he said.

Vehle said his greatest disappointment was the defeat of an omnibus bill that would have raised auto registration fees to supply needed funds to the state's counties. The bill also would have put needed cash into state coffers by raising wholesale gasoline taxes by up to 3 percent for two successive years. The last gas tax hike was in 1999, said Vehle, and inflation has eroded its value by nearly half.

Vehle said he was pleased to get the bill out of the Senate Transportation Committee, but he couldn't rally the last few votes needed to move the bill to the next level and it lost by three votes on the Senate floor.

All three lawmakers believe the late addition of federal stimulus funds has complicated an already tough budget situation.

"I think we need to be very cautious in the use of stimulus money," Hamiel said, nothing that if the economy doesn't rebound, the state will find itself back where it started, pre-stimulus.

On the plus side, Hamiel believes that any stimulus money earmarked for infrastructure development will have long-term positive effects.

All have heard from constituents about the importance of education funding

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Both legislative bodies are struggling with the financial demands of education and especially the impending loss of sparsity funds for the state's far-flung western school districts, Hamiel said. The demise of enrollment averaging also has accelerated the loss of state funding.

"It's all about setting priorities," said Hamiel.

And dilemmas.

Forced to choose between funding education and the arts, Hamiel said education wins every time.

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