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Some breathing room for S.D., perhaps

With the state budget in sorry shape and a federal stimulus package promising short-term relief, legislators have talked of different ways to stretch the current session to give them more time to make decisions about spending for the next 18 months.

With the state budget in sorry shape and a federal stimulus package promising short-term relief, legislators have talked of different ways to stretch the current session to give them more time to make decisions about spending for the next 18 months.

In the session's opening week, Rep. Tom Deadrick, R-Platte, told me the Legislature should set aside four or five days at the end of session and use them late in the spring, when revenue estimates are more certain and details of any federal help are known. The constitution limits the number of days lawmakers may meet, but if both houses agree, they can recess for any length of time.

A day or so after Deadrick talked with me, Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Brandon, said another way might be to finish the current business, adjourn and call a special session later in the fiscal year.

The advantage of that plan?

Lawmakers would have to have acted on all pending issues except the budget. When a special session came, it could be limited to nothing but the budget.

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That wasn't always the case. When I began covering the Legislature 40 years ago, governors could call special sessions, but they couldn't control how long the lawmakers hung around or how many things could be introduced. It was more than a little scary, apparently. There had only been eight or nine special sessions in state history when I got here. With a later constitution change to limit special-session topics, they've become, if not common, then at least far from rare.

State budget are a bit of a crapshoot in the best of times. The budget that legislators will finalize this session -- by mid-March if they follow normal practice -- is for a 12-month fiscal year that doesn't begin until July 1. That means they must estimate state tax collections and other revenue production through June 30, 2010. Last March, they took a shot at this year's revenue, long before every market in the world went down the rabbit hole. They missed a bit.

South Dakota is going to get stimulus money -- a lot of it. Gov. Mike Rounds notes that it's one-time money and doesn't fix the fact that he and legislators have been spending more than they were making. The state went through $80 million or so in highway reserves in about four years and is on track to drain a property-tax reduction reserve. So, no, one-time stimulus money doesn't solve that problem. It sure offers some breathing room, though.

It also makes for a handy avoidance mechanism.

For example: When the Senate Transportation Committee talked about raising license plate fees and the gas tax last Friday, Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist outlined his best information on what the stimulus package would mean for South Dakota roads. About $183 million, he said, to be spent on construction. A lobbyist listening to the discussion leaned to me and whispered, "Then, they don't even need to talk about raising taxes for a couple of years."

Hmmm.

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