Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her annual budget address Dec. 6, 2023, at the Capitol in Pierre. Noem heralded the value of the Bright Start program during her speech. She pushed to expand the program in 2022 and asked lawmakers to continue funding it in 2023. (Makenzie Huber/SD Searchlight)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem played Santa Claus and the Grinch during her budget address Tuesday.
Listening closely were state legislators who know they must pay the bills once the thrill of new gifts has faded.
Particularly excited on Tuesday were Democrats, a small minority in the Legislature. Noem delivered their Christmas morning dreams come true.
They quickly praised her speech as if she was one of their own.
Noem first proposed eliminating the state’s sales tax on food. It has been a top goal of Democrats’ since about 2004. They’d replace it with a state income tax.
She advocated expanding family leave – another issue generally championed by the left. It’s good for families, but not so much for employers. She didn’t mention child care, a real problem for working parents.
She called for free college tuition for National Guard members – another priority for Democrats, although they’d prefer free tuition for all.
She played both Santa and the Grinch when it came to describing the state’s voters.
“On November 8th the people of this great state gave us a mandate,” she said. “They turned out in record breaking numbers to make sure we in this building heard from them loud and clear. They demand low taxes, less regulation and more freedom. They were also clear that they want us to take care of people and create opportunities to succeed. As governor, I will continue to listen to our people.”
But she was an annoyed Grinch when it came to the 56 percent who voted to expand Medicaid.
“Make no mistake, the expansion of Medicaid – as passed on the November ballot by the people of this state – is an expansion of a government program that will give free health care to a population of the state that the majority are able-bodied, single males.”
Boo on you, voters.
As for taking care of people, she was a bit cheap on gifts given state employees, educators and health care employers.
At a time when “Our state is bringing in incredible revenue,” she offered only 5 percent pay raises when inflation is running above 8 percent. Social Security recipients will do much better with an 8.7 percent increase in 2023.
On top of last year’s 6 percent increase, which also failed to match inflation, those workers will continue to fall behind.
Given that there are about 500 unfilled teaching jobs caused by low salaries and large classes, one might think a bold solution would be offered. And nursing homes have lost 1,000 employees because of low pay and burnout.
Speaking of nursing homes, Noem offered $21 million, even though a September study for her Department of Human Services said $62 million is needed to bring funding to 92-93 percent of what the state should pay for Medicaid and maintain our aging buildings.
So, nursing facilities will continue to struggle, or people who can afford to pay will continue subsidizing a state that doesn’t pay its bills.
Legislators also are gasping as they consider up to $1 billion in new state prisons, not to mention the unfunded need for several new county jails.
There also are many building projects now under construction that are costing much more than anticipated. Noem recommended spending $25 million extra to finish those.
The real bill likely will be higher.
Although Noem claims “our revenues are strong because we have grown our economy,” legislators know that’s only partially true. Significant revenue growth is directly attributed to billions in recent federal spending in South Dakota. Inflation also counts for a part of it.
And the trillions in federal spending nationally is driving demand for many of the products manufactured in South Dakota.
Three years down the line, that federal money likely will be gone. That is what worries legislators.
Fortunately, legislative leadership is vowing to solve the state’s pressing problems first.
Only then will Noem’s proposed $100 million sales tax cut be discussed.
Just like parents eager to please their children on Christmas morning, legislators know there is a cost for that temporary joy.
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