On its second try, the South Dakota House today approved House Bill 1182, Governor Dennis Daugaard’s funding mechanism for increasing teacher pay. The vote was 47–21, the minimum required to meet the required two-thirds threshold for a tax increase.
The Governor needed one Republican to change from nay to yea from last week’s vote. Two Republicans, Rep. Scott Craig (R-33/Rapid City) and Rep. Joshua Klumb (R-20/Mount Vernon) switched to aye. Democrat Dennis Feickert (D-1/Aberdeen), after an ambivalent speech in which he scolded the education lobby for not sticking together and fighting the cuts of Governor Daugaard’s first budget, switched to nay.
Rep. Thomas Brunner (R-29/Nisland) said raising taxes is the easy way out (all it takes is a vote, said Rep. Brunner, apparently ignoring that it took the House two weeks and thirty years to get to today’s vote) and that we should reprioritize our state budget lines and raise taxes only as a last resort, not as a first resort (again, for thirty years, Dems propose plans to increase teacher pay, GOP consistently shoots them down, and somehow, HB 1182 is now a first resort?).
Rep. Elizabeth May (R-27/Kyle) spoke of the poor, hungry kids who come into her grocery store and need pennies from the change jar to cover the sales. She voiced the sentiment, repeated by many of her Republican colleagues, that the HB 1182 sales tax will hurt those kids. Sales tax is regressive and hits the poor the hardest, said the Republican opponents.
As I picked my jaw up off the floor over conservative Republicans finally endorsing my argument that sales tax is bad and that South Dakota’s overall tax scheme is rigged to favor the rich and beat up the poor. I think Rep. May might actually mean what she said: last year, she supported the traditional Democratic proposal to repeal the sales tax on food. Alas, Reps. Beal, Haggar, Latterell, Russell, and Wiik, who voted against HB 1182 today, voted against the effort to relieve the poor of the food tax.
Rep. Feickert is the first Democrat to peel away from unity behind the Governor and his Blue Ribbon panel and the SDEA. Feickert will not have to answer for that decision at the polls, since he’s termed out of the House. I’ve wondered if there could be a Democratic argument for voting against the funding mechanism for raising teacher pay, and have settled on this distasteful pragmatic position (informed in part by Rep. Ray Ring’s [D-17/Vermillion] speech during today’s floor debate on HB 1182):
- We need to raise teacher pay to competitive levels now, this year, in one big shot.
- Current revenues cannot cover such a raise.
- No one in Pierre today can assemble a working two-thirds majority to pass any tax increase or new tax for teacher pay other than a sales tax. (Translation: Raising teacher pay is a big dang pill. Raising sales tax is a big dang pill. There’s no room in Pierre’s sclerotic gullet for more or bigger pills in this dose.)
- We accept teacher pay raised on a crappy tax now.
- We get teachers show us their gratitude by rounding up their friends and electing new legislators who express a commitment to (1) sustaining competitive teacher salaries and (2) making serious tax reform the centerpiece of the 2017 Session.
I don’t like that position. I don’t like burdening the poor with extra sales tax while redistributing their wealth up the ladder to property owners with $40 million of property tax cuts. I’d much prefer a progressive tax plan. But I also realize I’m not going to get food tax relief or an honest to goodness progressive tax this year.
So let’s patch the biggest hole we have right now. Let’s pay our teachers and end our embarrassing and damaging status of being 51st in the nation for teacher pay. But once that problem is solved, let’s use the things we’ve heard in this debate to turn South Dakota voters’ attention to the next big problem we need to solve: our regressive tax system. Let’s get everyone together—teachers and taxpayers (wait! teachers pay taxes, too!), ranchers and renters, the country club crowd and those kids in Kyle scrounging pennies to get a sandwich at Liz May’s grocery. Let’s talk about how South Dakota’s tax system hurts the poor and doesn’t fairly or fully capture the wealth available to support public services. And let’s come back with new legislators next year committed to solving this problem by enacting a new progressive tax system for South Dakota.