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Wismer: State Budget Chooses Cheap Norquist Ideology over Needs and Dreams

Last week, Representative Susan Wismer and the rest of the Democratic caucus voted Aye on House Bill 1320, the 4.69-billion-dollar Fiscal Year 2019 budget.

Rep. Wismer, a former Appropriator* who now serves on House Taxation and works as an accountant and thus understands the state’s finances more than all but perhaps fifteen people in South Dakota, does not like this budget. She wanted to vote Nay. She could have voted Nay and gotten all nine of her Democratic colleagues in the House to do the same, and the budget still would have passed by four votes.

So why vote Aye? Rep. Wismer explained her vote in her floor speech Friday. She reprinted that speech with some introduction on her political Facebook page on Sunday.

I spoke on the House floor during the budget bill discussion. It’s always a “Oh happy day…aren’t we amazing; we balanced the budget again (just like we have the last 100+ years)…Triple A bond rating…10% reserves… ” Gah!!!

So, it was my responsibility to throw a little cold water on the partiers, right? It’s not really a fun role, but I hope you agree it was a necessary message. I don’t reprint it here to brag, but to let you know that even though the media doesn’t report it very much, Democratic legislators are doing their best to represent those of you who feel unrepresented in our state legislature.

“I must rise to provide some counter point on behalf of the citizens I represent. I agree that appropriators have made many difficult decisions. They have worked hard to make the best use of the revenue we have available. In fact, if you were in that room as I was for 6 years, you may very well have also been convinced, as I still am, that it’s not possible to responsibly meet our obligations to our citizens by applying Grover Norquist’s ideological nirvana to our outdated patched together state revenue stream.” (editor’s [Wismer’s] note here: Grover Norquist is the nation’s “no new taxes” guy. He sends a litmus test pledge form to every candidate for office, telling them if they don’t sign and return it, promising never to vote to raise a tax, you’re on his “bad” list. It’s a “fun” introduction to partisan politics).

“Only during years 5 & 6 of this administration was it deemed politically safe to tackle two of our long-standing funding shortfalls: education and roads. Medicaid providers have been waiting ever since for similar attention. As this body made very clear during the discussion on alcohol taxes for counties, It isn’t politically expedient to talk about revenue raising in an election year for counties or Medicaid providers or anyone else. So they must wait.

“I have been an observer of the legislative process for longer than many of you can imagine. I too interned back in my college days. The cast of characters I got to know included names like Bill Grams, Jim Dunne, Gene Mahan, Homer Harding, Roger Shanard, (current Billie’s Grandpa) Billie Sutton, and of course my Uncle Curt Jones. Perhaps because of that background, I get frustrated, because I don’t believe the current legislature respects the many efforts that our predecessors have made to cut budgets and keep SD a lean mean governing machine.

“For the sake of our #1 business friendly rating…How many more nursing homes need to close…Rosholt, Hosmer, Bryant, and Tripp have closed, just during this governor’s term. Who’s next? Will it be Salem? Or Clark? Or Deadwood?

“For the sake of our #1 business friendly rating….How many more children are we willing to chase out of the state, telling them to find greener pastures elsewhere?…How much more mediocrity are we willing to accept in our public K-12 institutions while our really involved parents flee them for private schools?

“What if lack of health care wasn’t keeping thousands of our citizens from a fully productive work life …what if treatment for addiction or mental health was available in more communities? What if employee turnover rates at our care facilities were less catastrophic? The health of a state is not judged solely by its state budget. It’s judged by the health and safety and prosperity of its citizens,…and not just its most well-to-do citizens, but also those who are caretakers and educators and government workers and students and our elderly and our disabled.

“I believe that we as a legislative body or a state have an irrational fear that once we started saying yes to funding needs, we wouldn’t be able to stop…that government needs are a bottomless pit. First of all, I do not believe that. Other states have found a way to thread that needle much better than we have. And furthermore, that fear should not stop us from making the really tough decisions, which would involve telling our voters the truth: it’s time to put SD’s citizens first, not some ideological nirvana from an East Coast ideologue.

“We have a responsibility to quit mouthing quips and to be truthful with voters…we are not being good stewards of the resources that we were given by our ancestors. As you go out and campaign this year, don’t just feed voters the pablum about caring for education and health care. Tell them what you’ve learned as a legislator about unmet funding needs, and the long-term consequences to our state. Tell them you have a dream about what SD could be.

“WE were elected to make hard choices about revenue AND spending, not just to say no. We were elected to start being relevant and responsible to the state we claim to love. If we dared to dream, what might we do? I’m dreaming of a state that serves ALL of its citizens much better than it does today, and though I appreciate ever so much the effort put into this budget, it does not address the REAL elephant in the room. I would like to express that disappointment with a no vote but I don’t think that would be responsible today” [Rep. Susan Wismer, remarks on HB 1320—general appropriations bill, political Facebook page, 2018.03.11].

*Correction 2018.03.13 17:30 CDT: I originally wrote that Rep. Wismer was on Joint Appropriations this year. She reminds me below that she served on that committee during her previous terms but now is on House Taxation and House Judiciary. I regret the error but still contend that if you want to understand the state budget, Rep. Wismer is one of the best people in the state to ask.

7 Comments

  1. Rorschach 2018-03-13

    Well said, Rep. Wismer.

  2. Darin Larson 2018-03-13

    I agree with pretty much everything Rep. Wismer said. My question is why vote in favor of a budget that is so lacking in necessary funding to support the priorities of our state like education and healthcare for our citizens? To call out the inadequacies of the state’s spending plan and then vote for that plan is akin to being against drinking and driving in principle as you drive away from the bar in an inebriated state.

    We’ve tried the austerity model of funding state government for at least the last 40 years. Our economic growth rates lag behind our neighbors just like our school funding and teacher pay levels. We tax the poor among us on the purchase of every necessity of life so that we can reduce the tax burden on the rest of us. We use a taxation system based upon a 19th century agrarian society. This makes no sense in the 21st century. Our students, the elderly, our work force, our business infrastructure, the sick, the poor–really, all of us–pay the price for the lack of vision and failure of our state leaders to recognize the needs of our state and to act on those needs for the future of our state.

  3. Buckobear 2018-03-13

    Bottom line: We can have nice things.
    We’re always told that the “pie” can only be cut into so many pieces. Time to bake a bigger pie.

  4. Rep. Susan Wismer 2018-03-13

    Thanks for the repost Cory. One small correction: I’m not on Appropriations Committee now, though I keep up a little, as anyone can, by listening to some of their hearings over SD.net. My stock line is “When it feels like you’re just rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, it must be time to move on.” So that’s what I did when I came back to the House in 17. I’ve been on Judiciary and Taxation Committee these last two years.

    As to the Aye vote: Democratic legislators struggle with that decision every year. I’d be glad to explain it another time.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-03-13

    Sorry about that mis-assignment, Rep. Wismer! I’ll correct that above.

  6. grudznick 2018-03-13

    Ms. Wismer is wise beyond her years. She should be reassigned to the appropriator group again, but Mr. Mickelson probably withheld it from her because she has dangerous ideas. Or Mr. Hawley chose not to put her there to take the daily verbal beatings they probably dole out there. Ms. Wismer is a voice to be listened to by all.

  7. Debbo 2018-03-13

    That’s a very good speech by Rep. Wismer and a very good comment by Darin Larson. You are the kind of people needed to populate the Majority of the statehouse and inhabit the governor’s office.

    As Wismer said, SD needs a legislature to actually govern, not just say no.

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