The key exchange over the Legislature’s cancellation of its promise to dedicate 63% of last year’s half-cent sales tax increase to teacher pay came in House floor debate between two veteran legislators who were not in the chamber last year to vote on that sales tax.
Rising to address Senate Bill 35, Representative Dan Ahlers (D-25/Dell Rapids) said the Legislature has an obligation to keep its promises. Representative Larry Rhoden (R-29/Union Center) said schools should be thankful they aren’t getting worse treatment:
Representative Ahlers (speaking at 1:46:40) said the recurring theme of the 2017 Session has been trust. Ahlers said voters have asked him throughout this Session if that half-cent tax is going to stay in education. He has told voters he hopes so, SB 35 changes that.
Ahlers said this Legislature has an obligation to uphold the previous legislature’s commitment. He noted that the Legislature has certainly expressed such an expectation of the school boards that benefited from last year’s sales tax deal. Just last week, House Appropriations rejected a bill (SB 92), which would have extended the time school districts have to spend down their reserves. Opponents of that bill argued that spending down reserves by the end of the 2017–2018 school year was part of the deal that secured passage of the Blue Ribbon sales tax and funding formula, and schools now have to hold up their end of the deal. “But today in this bill,” said Ahlers, “we’re going back on our deal. We’re telling the school districts that you need to abide by the rules but we don’t, and we can change them.”
“We can find ways to fund this $2.4 million if we really want to,” Representative Ahlers concluded. “Your vote today will demonstrate whether or not this is really an honorable body.”
Representative Larry Rhoden rose (timestamp 1:50:10) with a noticeably hot response. He labeled Representative Ahlers’s comments “absolutely ridiculous.” Rhoden said past Legislatures make commitments based on the economy at that time… from which we are to conclude that no Legislative commitment lasts beyond the next monthly revenue and employment reports.
Rhoden said his fellow ranchers would be “tickled pink” to have a zero decrease in their budgets this year. Ditto rowcroppers. With agriculture pouring out $25 billion in gross product, ten times more than the second largest industry, claimed Rhoden, (Darin! Here are the political implications of our argument about measuring industry size!), “80 to 90 percent of our budget shortfall is directly at the feet of agriculture,” said Rhoden. “So then to get up here and beat your chest and say that we have no right to hold education level I think is ridiculous and quite frankly it makes me a little upset!”
“I had noticed,” muttered Speaker Mickelson from the chair.
Representative Rhoden said that, “given the increase from last year,” the education community “should feel extremely fortunate that they aren’t taking a cut.”
Representative Ahlers highlights a public trust issue that may cut as deeply among voters as the repeal of Initiated Measure 22. The 2016 Legislature made a deal. The 2017 Legislature is now backing out of that deal. And Representative Rhoden’s best response is, essentially, be glad we aren’t doing worse to you.