Time to report on this year’s legislative session. Thank you again to the people of Clay and Turner counties for allowing me to represent you in Pierre. Legislators are limited to four two-year terms, so this is my last Legislative Session. I plan to somehow stay involved in politics and other types of service, but Mary and I also plan to spend more time traveling and visiting our six grandchildren and four children.
I am again serving on the Education Committee and the Taxation Committee. To serve you best, I need to hear from you. My contact information is at the end of this report.
The session started on Tuesday with Gov. Noem’s State of the State address, which was lacking in detail and almost devoid of new ideas. She reiterated much of what was in her budget address: another round of improving Internet in rural areas, more treatment for substance abuse, especially meth addiction. Who can object to any of those projects?
All are important, even critical, and easy to justify. However, the governor said in her budget address that satisfying those critical needs leaves little or no increases for teachers, state employees, and folks working for community service providers and nursing homes. The Consumer Price Index (the most common measure of inflation) shows prices have risen by about 2.3 percent over the past year, but the governor's budget provides no increase to even help them keep up with the cost of living.
Gov. Noem did mention that revenues seem to be a little better than expected, leaving open the possibility of some wage increases, but she gave no details. South Dakota's average teacher salaries are back to 46th in the nation; adjusted for South Dakota’s lower cost of living, teachers still rank 39th nationally, $5,000 to $15,000 behind teachers in surrounding states.
The governor's address was as notable for what it ignored as for what it included. Much still needs to be done to make state government more transparent and accountable. There was little or no mention of early childhood education, uninsured South Dakotans who would have health insurance if the state expanded Medicaid, or what to do about our outdated tax system.
In Wednesday’s State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Gilbertson reported on the success of drug and alcohol courts in reducing costs by keeping offenders out of jail or prison, with lower recidivism rates. These nonviolent offenders remain in the community to work, support their families, and incur lower medical costs.
The justice reform that began with one of the first laws we passed when I joined the Legislature in 2013—as well as juvenile justice reform passed two years later—is still a work in progress, but on balance seems to be working. The greatest need is for more staff and courts in other parts of the state. Again, we need more financial resources. Low tax revenues are good but the costs (social and emotional, as well as financial) of inadequate resources are also huge.
Chief Justice Gilbertson will retire this year, after 11 years in private practice, nine years as a Circuit Judge, and 25 years on the Supreme Court, including 19 years as Chief Justice. I always enjoyed his State of the Judiciary addresses, and appreciated his advocacy for the state's needs, such as drug and alcohol courts, protecting senior citizens from fraud, and attracting lawyers to rural areas. A true public servant whose commitment and wisdom will be missed.
Crow Creek Sioux Tribes Chairman Lester Thompson, Jr., gave the State of the Tribes address on Thursday. Chairman Thompson expressed his appreciation for cooperation between the tribal governments and state government, but also his concern about tribe-related legislation brought without prior consultation with the tribes, such as the "riot boosting" bills (Senate Bills 189 and 190) last year. He is also concerned about protecting the environment, especially from pipeline spills.
On Thursday in the Rotunda, representatives of several religious denominations, Christian and non-Christian, joined in ecumenical prayers for tolerance and religious liberty. This is the third year for this much needed event to make us all more aware of our need for openness to others' ideas and support for people seeking a better life free of oppression and violence. Some religions were conspicuous by their absence. I hope they see fit to participate in the future.
Several organizations have already held events to seek support for their interests. Interest groups and their lobbyists provide important, necessary information, but I also need to hear directly from constituents. The best way to reach me is email at email@example.com or Ray.Ring@sdlegislature.gov or cell phone at 605-675-9379.
You can also call the Legislative Research Council at 605-773-3251 and leave a short message that will be delivered to my desk on the House floor. I can’t respond to every message, but I’ll give priority to District 17 constituents. Be sure to let me know where you live.
Please come to the Cracker Barrels on February 1 and 29, 9:00 a.m., Vermillion City Hall. I welcome other opportunities to meet with groups in District 17.