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WOSTER: When budget scuffles happen at the Capitol

A regular opinion piece from columnist Terry Woster.

Terry Woster column photo
Columnist Terry Woster, who lives in Chamberlain.

South Dakota seems awash in money related to COVID relief these days, but most years legislators and program managers fight over every dollar.

In normal times, with limited money, when members of the Joint Appropriations Committee make one program a priority, they of necessity make another program less a priority. A common end-of-session lament is, “We didn’t have the money.’’ What that means is, “We used the money for other things.’’

I read that the pandemic has brought billions of dollars to the state. Maybe lawmakers won’t have to fight? That would be different. They always fight over money.

I recall a year — it was during Republican Gov. George Mickelson’s time in office — when the two political parties competed to see who could look the most frugal to voters. I’m being general here, but basically Democrats said they could whittle down Mickelson’s proposed budget. Republicans said they could slice it more. “Anything you can do,’’ you know? Party legislative leaders waged the fight with news conferences and press releases. Meanwhile, appropriators hunkered down in a meeting room, comparing revenue and expenses, trying to balance the two in a plan that would run state government.

When this budget scuffle happened, the two parties were somewhat balanced in legislative members. Making public points might impress voters in the next election.

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As I said, leaders promised cuts. Generally, they meant cuts to Mickelson’s proposed increase, but still, they meant cuts of some sort. Appropriators, focused on balance sheets, paid little attention to the political statements. The appropriators weren’t isolated, exactly, but they might as well have been.

A Republican leader told me his members calculated that they could cut $15 million, maybe $20 million from the proposed budget. I looked up the House vice chair of appropriations, also a Republican. Here’s an approximation of our chat:

Me: The leader says you guys will really cut the budget proposal.

Vice chair: Well, I think we can make cuts. I’d hate to have anyone put a number on it right now.

Me: He said $15 million, maybe $20 million.

Vice chair: (huge sigh) Oh. Wow.

During another Mickelson year, some legislators looked for new revenue sources to fund some new programs and to increase funding for some existing programs. That effort failed late in session, so several proposed spending bills had to be killed on the last day for passing legislation.

I’ll never forget that evening. The sun had long since quit shining through the south windows of the Capitol. In the House chamber, empty pizza boxes and cheese-crusted burrito wrappers filled the waste baskets. Republican Rep. Jan Nicolay of Sioux Falls, House chair of appropriations, stood again and again, quietly asking that one spending bill after another be killed. Disappointed and angry, she did her job. Legislators adjourned as they do every session, to return the next January with other ideas and other spending priorities.

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The budget is the basis for government operations. The people who put it together often have an out-sized influence in the Capitol building. I stood one Friday afternoon talking with the head of one of the biggest state programs. He said he had tickets on an early flight the next morning to visit family in Arizona. He was excited. A couple of appropriations leaders approached and said, “We’re going through your budget in the morning. Can you be there?’’ The guy grinned and said enthusiastically, “Sure. I’ll be there.’’ After the legislators left, I said, “What about Arizona?’’ He grimaced. “Yeah, what about Arizona?’’

I never think of the appropriations process without recalling the first time Bill Janklow dealt with the budget committee. He was a new attorney general. Some lawmakers — in both parties — thought he was brash. They intended to show him that the legislative branch ran the Capitol building.

They grilled him in detail about his budget plan. He took it a while, then said, “Look. If you give me $50,000, I’ll pay my salary. If you give me more, I’ll run my office. Now, I have work to do.’’ He walked out.

They approved his budget. I don’t think anyone in the room thought they’d taught him a lesson.

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A regular opinion piece by columnist Terry Woster