Gov. Kristi Noem served up a predominantly rural assortment of hors d'oeuvres for Tuesday’s state of the state address. The annual speech typically sets up expectations for more serious fare in the legislative session.
Noem’s tray was heavy on rural issues — promoting pheasant habitat, rural broadband, agriculture and rural housing. A few mystery canapé’s piqued interest for the Black Hills, such as her big — if undisclosed — plans for Hot Springs, vague references to improved mental health care, and an initiative to stare down methamphetamine.
Rapid City and the Black Hills earned specific mentions related to the importance of Ellsworth Air Force Base. The state must ensure Box Elder, Rapid City, and the Black Hills region are equipped to capitalize on Ellsworth’s rapid expansion as the B21 replaces the B1, Noem said. We can all hope the transition to an advanced Air Force bomber stimulates the local economy.
A few expected items were conspicuously missing. Noem said she hears from state parents who lie awake at night and wonder if they are a medical emergency away from financial disaster — and that was the entirety of her discussion about health care.
Noem said lawmakers wouldn’t raise taxes or needlessly grow the government. Both of those morsels were expected as they featured large in her recent campaigns.
The emphasis she placed on expanding rural broadband was surprising. Half of South Dakota counties have rural areas where one in four people lacks broadband access, Noem said, announcing intentions to close this high-speed internet gap.
Rural broadband has been a perennial focus. The South Dakota Dashboard recently released a report that concluded rural connectivity in this state significantly exceeds national averages. This was despite the fact that, with fewer than five residents per square mile, deploying fiber costs on average $3,571 per resident in rural regions compared with about $26 per resident in densely populated Sioux Falls.
To improve pheasant habitat, meanwhile, Noem proposed voluntary funding solutions, such as premium hunting tags and conservation themed license plates. Yet she also praised and promoted ethanol expansion, which has been a primary driver in the conversion of pheasant habitat to cropland. It’s hard to fight market trends, but maybe voluntary funding measures can somewhat slow habitat conversion.
Noem said the search was on for the “Next Big Thing,” hoping to repeat Gov. Bill Janklow’s credit card coup of the early 1980’s. There aren’t a lot of winning lottery tickets lying on the ground, but maybe South Dakota will get lucky again.
To ease the gap in affordable rural housing, Noem announced a pilot project where communities of less than 5,000 people could purchase prison-built modular units to rent at affordable rates. Rapid City, meanwhile, deals with serious affordable housing issues.
To address the shortage of skilled workers for the state’s workforce, Noem said she would promote high school career weeks, “when every high school student will get out of the classroom to experience a day on the job.” It’s always worthwhile to spend time with a truly interested student, but few businesses can spare the time to shepherd apathetic students present only to fulfill class requirements. Tuition support for technical schools might be more productive.
Meanwhile, Noem proposes every high school graduate be able to pass the United States citizenship exam — a proposal that drew the loudest cheers from lawmakers. Democracy depends on an informed citizenry, but another government-mandated test seems a strange choice after all the effort to repeal nationally mandated tests. Teaching to the test — memorizing rote facts and figures — does little to promote true understanding. As a side note, it might be interesting to find out how many legislators could pass this test.
Overall, Noem’s presentation left her Black Hills public wishing for something more substantial. Perhaps the Legislature will serve up some real meat and potatoes.