« The Daily Dose

Lawmakers preach, but rarely support, local control

by Greg Belfrage

Bernie Hunhoff is one of those rare Democrats with whom I often find myself in agreement. I've interviewed Bernie a number of times over the years, dating back to his bid for governor in 1998. The Yankton native is currently the Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives.

Bernie is a decent, very affable guy with a generally common sense point of view. There are a lot of issues on which we disagree, but I have always found our conversations to be thought-provoking.

Bernie joined me on the air this week to update us on the current legislative session. During a question on local control, he made a statement that struck me as incredibly profound.

"I don't think local control is necessarily a Republican or Democrat ideal. I think its an American ideal that we make decisions as close to home as possible. That goes back to our country's roots," Hunhoff said.

Bernie went to say that many townships in northeast South Dakota are having a difficult time due to all of the flooding. He said many bridges and roads are falling into disrepair because townships, under state law, have little flexibility to raise taxes to repair them.

"Isn't that a local control decision? Shouldn't a township government, which is about as American as you get, its like a townhall meeting... so what could be more local control?"

Counties throughout the state are having the same problem. Minnheha County is dealing with a 28 percent increase in felony arrests and no means to raise taxes except through an "opt out" of the property tax freeze.

Instead of dealing with these complex local government funding issues, what have lawmakers been spending their time on?

Red light cameras. School start dates. Texting while driving bans. 

Rep. Peggy Gibson of Huron introduced a bill this year to ban red light cameras. Gibson says she was "infuriated" by Sioux Falls' decision to install a red light camera nine years ago. And if you missed it, let me mention again...she's from Huron. And it was nine years ago.

Gibson's bill has been defeated in previous sessions. The red light camera in Sioux Falls, the state's lone red light camera, hasn't been in operation for almost four years.

A circuit court judge found the camera violated state law. It was taken down shortly afterward in July 2010.

Yet, Gibson's bill passed the state legislature last week on a nearly unanimous vote. Only one representative, Rep. Tona Rozum (R-Mitchell), opposed the ban.

Let me recap for the discernment-challenged. 

Sioux Falls puts up red light camera. Judge says red light camera violates state law. Sioux Falls takes down red light camera. Four years later, the House of Representatives votes to ban red light cameras which judge says are already illegal under state law.

Talk about a solution in search of a problem. Talk about closing the barn door after the horse has come home. Talk about (insert your own tired, worn out cliche here).

This is exactly the sort of thing that chaps me every year about our state legislature.

State lawmakers shouldn't be getting into these issues of local control. They ought to be clearing the path for local government to meet its responsiblities.

If Rep. Peggy Gibson doesn't like the laws being passed in Sioux Falls, she ought to relocate here and run for city council. It infuriates me that she would take her own personal pet peeve out to Pierre and legislate on it.

The same thing goes for school start times. That's a decision that should be made by school boards and local communities. 

However, school start times have been debated to death in the legislature. The issue was even referred to a public vote. 

And yet, year after stinking year, lawmakers bend to state tourism interests and take up the issue again. Something is seriously wrong if we're putting tourism and the state fair over the education of our children.

At times, lawmakers don't even know the facts.

During the debate on school start times last week, Rep. Brian Gosch (R-Rapid City) said, "We have to look at the needs of all the state. We're still a rural state. That shouldn't be ignored because a smaller group of people in South Dakota decide that's not important to them."

A minority, he says? 

Over 125 of the state's 151 school districts started school before the last Monday in August. In the world where I live, that's a super-majority.

While we're speaking of Rep. Gosch, he appears to be one of the primary usurpers of local control this session.

Gosch is behind the proposal that would prohibit local communities from passing texting while driving bans. He also wants to replace the seven existing municipal bans with a statewide ban on texting.

I'm not advocating for texting bans, as I don't believe they work. However, state lawmakers have had years to pass a ban and failed year after year. When they failed to act, municipalities passed their own bans.

Now that cities are taking action, state lawmakers want to get back in on the act. 

Talk about being a day late and a dollar short. Talk about (insert your own tired, worn out cliche here).

State lawmakers are simply out of touch and way behind the curve on these local issues. They were more than content to do nothing until local governments took it upon themselves.

Instead of intruding on these local issues, legislators ought be concerning themselves with finding a more equitable way to fund county and township governments. 

Something is seriously wrong when the City of Sioux Falls is awash in sales tax revenue and Minnehaha County is constantly having to opt out of the property tax freeze.

I don't wish to sound too critical of lawmakers because most are responsible, dedicated public servants. They put in a lot of hours to serve the public good for little pay.

But there must be something about the culture in the capitol that causes them to get power hungry.

State lawmakers have enough challenges this session without involving themselves in issues best left to local government.

Bernie was right. Local control is an American ideal. Let's all start living the ideal. 

Greg Belfrage is heard mornings 6am-9am on KELO Newstalk 1320 AM / 107.9 FM. Greg can be contacted at greg.belfrage@mwcradio.com. Please follow him on Twitter.