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Voters hear back from Pierre: White, Gibson and Werner discuss legislative issues

Posted: Monday, Jan 28th, 2013

District 22 constituents had an opportunity to hear from all three of their legislators Saturday at the first in a series of legislative forums in Huron. From left are Sen. Jim White, R-Huron; moderator Mike Held, Rep. Dick Werner, R-Huron; and Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron. PHOTO BY ROGER LARSEN/PLAINSMAN

HURON – Three weeks into the session, the atmosphere in the House and Senate chambers remains amiable as legislators work on issues ranging from controlling corrections costs to boosting funding for local English as a Second Language programs.

“I feel there’s a lot more congeniality across the board,” Sen. Jim White, R-Huron, said Saturday at the first of four legislative forums. “We are very happy to see that.”

White is new to the Senate, having served his first legislative term in the House.

New to the House is Rep. Dick Werner, R-Huron, while Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron, is starting her third term.

As members of the Appropriations Committee, White and Werner are still reviewing agency requests. Gibson, who sits on the House Judiciary and State Affairs committees, says she and her colleagues will see 45 to 50 percent of all the bills introduced in the session.

With the rapidly changing face of the Huron populace, appropriate ESL funding is a critical issue. But the legislators said they are more confident of success this year because it has also become a statewide concern.

A bill introduced by Gibson a year ago failed, but White and Werner are working to get her original legislation through in this session. The proposal is for a $2.5 million appropriation statewide.

As signatures for co-sponsorships were being gathered, Werner said every legislator who joined the effort indicated ESL is an issue in his or her district.

“I think things are looking fairly good,” he said.

The bill brought last year needed more clarification regarding the funding package, and that was worked out during a summer study. Huron Superintendent Terry Nebelsick was involved in that process.

“We do have to sell it across the state as a concern,” White said.

The numbers tell the story – one-third of the student population in Huron is learning English as a second language, and it is costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach them.

But it also bodes well for the local district and teachers that many of the students earning honor roll kudos are among the city’s newest residents, White said.

South Dakota is economically impacted by the workforce, and as the new laborers and their family members become part of local communities it is important that the children be educated, he said.

Huron’s sales tax revenue has increased 50 percent in the last five years, he pointed out. Gibson said while the state is generating more tax revenue, it needs to return more money to schools so teaching English to a growing number of students is not a local burden.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s criminal justice bills are also getting considerable attention this year as legislators examine proposals to avoid building more prisons in the future.

Instead, expansion of proven successes like local drug and drunk driving courts would be one way to stabilize prison populations.

Most prison inmates are nonviolent offenders, but there remain questions about public safety should they be ordered into rehabilitation programs instead of prison.

“I do know it’s a concern, but we have to move into it gradually,” White said.

Other questions concern funding coming back to local communities to support agencies working with substance abusers, Gibson said.

If the legislation is approved, Huron would be scheduled to get a DUI court in 2015 and a drug court in 2017, Werner said. Such alternative programs have had an 80 percent success rate where they have already been implemented in the state.

Meanwhile, South Dakota is not an island, and the legislators were asked how the uncertainty in Washington, D.C., over potential federal government cuts is affecting the state.

With a March deadline looming, it is a major concern, White said. He said he also worries that the leaders in Congress don’t realize how much of an impact it will have back home.

With the Legislature scheduled to adjourn in March, White sees a possibility of a special session.

It’s difficult for budget writers in South Dakota because a major portion of the state’s funding comes from the federal government, Werner said.

“On behalf of the state, we’re kind of in a holding pattern to see what they’re going to do,” he said.

South Dakota gets back more money than it pays in to Washington, D.C.

“We are very dependent on the federal government,” Gibson said.

But she views the “fiscal cliff” as a misnomer “because we have to pay bills we’ve incurred.”

Legislative leaders are also taking time this session to work on ideas for economic development and housing, issues that impact communities across the state.

Werner said support for the State Fair has turned around and is now strong.

A proposal to have the Legislature authorize $4 million for a new 4-H building on the fairgrounds looks good. Passage would not include state funding, but authorize the project so that private dollars could be raised.

However, a $100,000 appropriation of state funds is in the works to bring two governor’s houses to the state fairgrounds for inmate laborers.

For the complete article see the 01-27-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-27-2013 paper.

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