Gov. Dennis Daugaard will soon leave Pierre to begin converting a three-season porch on his 35-year-old Dell Rapids home. We’ll miss him. His accomplishments as governor over eight years weren’t flashy. Not all of his proposals were welcome. But his civility and thoughtful pragmatism exactly fit the needs of the times. Daugaard brought a truly South Dakota approach to some of the big challenges that faced our state.
Throughout his tenure, Daugaard was relentless in his pursuit of conservative fiscal policy. He was courageous when conditions demanded. He stayed focused on long-term benefits over short-term gains, and he kept no political scorecards. Daugaard was more concerned with doing good than looking good. Remaining humble, he quickly shared credit with communities whose help made success possible.
Free from the heavy weight of rigid ideology, Daugaard stayed flexible in the face of longtime challenges, guiding government by sheer force of reasonable explanations.
"In South Dakota, we don't let ideology get in the way of solving problems, and we don't let politics get in the way of professionalism, respect and friendship," Daugaard said in a recent speech to lawmakers. That may be aspirational for state lawmakers, but it absolutely reflects how Daugaard approached his role.
Daugaard entered office in 2010, when the ship of state needed righting from the storms of the Great Recession. He captained the unpleasant task of clearing debris and successfully led efforts to trim 10 percent from most departments of state government.
His method hearkened to the homespun lessons learned by South Dakota farmers who outlasted the Great Depression: Don’t spend money you don’t have, use windfall revenues for one-time expenses, and save something for true emergencies. Like those prudent survivors, he similarly persisted in efforts to maintain state buildings, prepare for employee retirements and always maintain a good credit score.
His yardstick for success was self-effacing: Leave the woodpile a little higher than when you found it. Daugaard did just that. He was cautious, prudent and responsible. Perhaps best of all, Daugaard possessed enough self-confidence to learn from his mistakes.
In 2012, he surprised legislators with the Investing in Teachers initiative, or House Bill 1234. Intended to address a statewide teacher shortage, it proposed merit-based bonuses for top teachers and pay incentives for teachers in high-need fields. The plan was narrowly passed by the Legislature but referred to an election and killed.
Most politicians would have permanently turned a bloodied nose to an easier task. Daugaard, however, learned that offering a potential solution was less important than leading others to agree upon one. Three years after his failed first effort, having heard the teacher shortage was reaching a critical point, Daugaard convened the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students.
South Dakota had been last in the nation in teacher pay for decades, and as the baby boomer generation retired, vacancies were failing to attract qualified applicants. The task force gathered public input, analyzed the problem and called for raising teacher salaries.
Knowing it would be controversial, Daugaard proposed a half-cent increase in the state sales tax to fund the plan. The package of bills passed the Legislature with bipartisan, two-thirds majority support, and this past summer, for the first time in more than 30 years, South Dakota was not last in the nation in average teacher salaries.
Raising taxes isn’t the first inclination of South Dakota legislators. It took leadership to identify the problem, determine a workable solution and overcome opposition.
Daugaard was part of other accomplishments, large and small: The criminal-justice system was reshaped, the state won a U.S. Supreme Court case that will allow states to force online shoppers to collect sales tax, and he made measured improvements to government transparency.
Daugaard wrote recently that the new sales tax revenue “will allow future state leaders to consider tax relief, or increases for education, workforce, public safety, taking care of people, or other priorities.”
His menu of options characteristically defies the label of liberal or conservative. We’re already beginning to see partisan claims on that money. Daugaard defied simple partisanship.
While in office, Daugaard attempted to expand Medicaid eligibility under Obamacare, but he also signed into law a 20-week abortion ban and legal protections to religious-affiliated adoption agencies. He also vetoed measures to expand gun rights and restrict which bathrooms transgender students could use at school.
It bears repeating: "In South Dakota, we don't let ideology get in the way of solving problems.”
In his unflashy way, Daugaard set the bar high. Attack the problem, and not the ideology. We call on South Dakota’s next governor to emulate the best of these qualities.