Things could be better in South Dakota. Businesses can’t find skilled workers. Unskilled wages bounce along the bottom — the state ranks 45th in average private wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And each year, state GDP inches forward at a petty pace.

Agriculture still struggles, the Farm Bill is trapped between the House and Senate food-stamp dispute, and a trade war with China complicates everything. Rising health care costs suck up more income, and aging South Dakota communities struggle to find doctors.

The Legislature, meanwhile, fixates on solutions in search of problems — transgender bathrooms and constitutional carry — issues that evoke passion but don’t address our problems. It’s like arguing over drapes while the roof rots.

The depth of disenchantment is reflected in this year’s rare competitive November race for governor. Kristi Noem has the misfortune of defending a Republican legacy during interesting times.

We find ourselves with a choice between two flavors of conservative, with Sutton the more moderate. As the race tightens, we’re seeing plenty of truths stretched beyond recognition. Let’s ignore that.

Both candidates can cite backgrounds in management, agriculture and lawmaking.

Noem’s prescription: Stay the course. She promises to do better at driving the economic engine.

Billie Sutton offers similar economic development promises but brings an X factor. Stepping forward with an appealing personal story and cowboy credibility, he has a history of reaching across the aisle to create consensus on big issues.

Since June, Noem has offered a dependable Republican political alchemy: Don’t raise taxes, limit federal intrusion and hold the reins on spending. She identifies major problems facing the state but offers few meaningful solutions.

She promises more economic growth will fund workforce investments and education improvements. We’ve heard that before.

She avoids answering difficult questions: As governor, would Noem have supported the half-cent sales tax increase to lift teacher pay off the bottom? She doesn’t want to discuss hypotheticals. It’s ingenuous.

Noem refuses to even consider Medicaid expansion. Her campaign’s 32-page policy packet offers next to nothing on health care beyond expanding telemedicine — which serves an important but minor function. When pressed, she points to a need for adequate funding of Indian Health Services to relieve the burden on Medicaid — as if that was realistic. Why not support Medicaid expansion to relieve pressure from inadequate IHS funding?

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Sutton, meanwhile, answers questions with a refreshing frankness. What you see is what you get. He offers a real place to start debate.

Sutton — eyeing a fortune in federal funds that South Dakota has allowed other conservative states to grab — would start the Medicaid expansion debate.

He makes no promises on finding funds for a West River mental health hospital, but we know the issue has no chance without a blue ribbon task force. Noem wants no additional task forces. We suspect she fears they might identify a solution.

On education, Noem recognizes the need for workforce development, but it seems unlikely from her proposals that she can deliver. Group purchasing for schools will extend funding only minimally. Public-private partnerships to develop craftsmen, while important, won’t fill the hole.

Which begs the question: Why would an industry offering high-paying jobs move to South Dakota if the state can’t meet its own needs for skilled workers?

After a generation of ho-hum economic development results, South Dakota must begin to focus on how to stop being Sears and start moving beyond Amazon. South Dakota must stop stepping over dollars to pick up dimes.

Politics is the art of the possible, and the governor’s office sets the agenda. We’re not a rich state. We can’t afford high taxes, but we also can’t afford to stifle all discussion. Denial is not a strategy.

Noem denies that GOP tax cuts have raised the national debt, but $21 trillion in red ink speaks otherwise. Even Republican House candidate Dusty Johnson expresses disappointment at his party’s lack of commitment to fiscal responsibility.

Noem is tough. She sets goals and pursues them. She would be a good caretaker, holding the line on taxes while leading the charge against abortion and human trafficking. But the state needs leadership that can turn the focus to bigger problems.

With Sutton, what you see is what you get. He looks for common ground. He would steer the discussion toward solutions for difficult problems. His election would challenge the decades of Republican complacency that has allowed corruption to fester.

Of the two, Sutton inspires more trust that he can get some of the big things done. The Journal endorses Sutton for South Dakota governor.

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