July 15, 2011

The gumbo effect

By Lorraine Collins

Anyone who grew up on the prairie or in the Badlands knows about gumbo. I don't mean the kind they eat in Louisiana. I mean the kind that sticks to your feet after a rain in South Dakota. In the old days before there were a lot of paved roads around here, driving on a dirt road and encountering a rain storm meant you were more likely than not to get stuck in the slick, muddy clay. We used to say that when you were walking in gumbo you'd take one step forward and slide back two. My father would laugh and claim that when he had to go somewhere, he'd turn around and walk backwards so he could get where he was going.

I've been thinking about the gumbo effect as a pretty good metaphor for what's been happening in South Dakota in recent years. That is, the more we strive to go forward, the farther back we seem to slide, at least in some important areas. For years and years we have claimed that we want to increase state aid to education but we haven't even managed to maintain the same level of support as in the past and this year schools have received even more cuts in funding.

Somehow, the idea seems to be that if we fire enough teachers and administrators, enlarge some class sizes and cut out various courses, we will improve education. And in terms of achieving an educated and competitive work force, the concept appears to be that we should raise tuition, making it more difficult for young people and their parents to afford a university education. If there's one thing we like to talk about in South Dakota it's the importance of education. We just don't want to pay for it.

 Of course, it's not only education that we don't want to pay for. We're kind of tough on roads and bridges, too. A recent report by the Road Information Program noted that only four states have a higher percentage of structurally deficient bridges than we do, but it is kind of comforting to know there's at least something in which we didn't come in last. South Dakota's AAA says that the poor condition of our roads costs motorists an average of $319 a year in extra vehicle operating costs, although I have no idea how they figured that out. The condition of our roads and bridges affects our ability to spur economic growth, which we claim we want, although we just don't want to pay taxes to fix them.

The U.S. Census Bureau just released a report that places South Dakota dead last in tax collections in the nation. In fact, our per capita tax rate declined $40 from 2009 to 2010, so in terms of providing more money for government, we're going backwards. This is hardly a surprise because our idea of enticing business and industry to our state seems to be to brag about having the lowest taxes and the lowest paid work force in the country. The fact that wages are low may help account for the fact that twice as many workers in South Dakota hold two jobs as the national average.

We in South Dakota seem to prefer taxes to be paid by somebody else, which is why we like to tax tourists and why the federal government provides $730 million more for our general appropriations budget than we do. It's nice of the people in the other 49 states to help us with our budget. I just hope they don't start thinking of us as a bunch of freeloaders.

I do realize that speaking in favor of taxes is like speaking in favor of death, that other inevitable thing. It's just something we don't want to think about and generally feel it's something that happens to somebody else and not us. But if we don't do something about making our income take care of our needs, maybe we'll have to start walking backwards. We might get ahead. And anyway we can see where we've been, even if we have no idea where we're going.

Lorraine Collins has published a collection of her Black Hills Pioneer columns called "Gathering My Wits."

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