November 12, 2011

Maybe we should pay attention

by Lorraine Collins 

When I read a recent news report that Black Hills Airport in Spearfish had been granted over $3 million by the Federal Aviation Administration to build a taxiway to make the airport safer, I was happy for the airport and for the taxpayers in Lawrence County. I don't know how much money the total airport improvement project has cost over the last few years, though I'm sure it is several million dollars. I haven't looked into the matter lately, but one eastern South Dakota newspaper indicated awhile ago that it was at least $7 million and also said that 95% of this was paid by the federal government. Another three percent is paid by the state, so we in Lawrence County have had to come up with only 2% of the money to provide an improved airport.

I'm certainly not against improving the Black Hills Airport because I know it has some recreational and commercial benefits to the county. I used to be co-owner of an airplane based there, my husband once served on the airport board, and he was also Commander of the Lookout Mountain Civil Air Patrol Squadron. I guess you could say we are pro-airplane.

Yet, thinking of the money the federal government has spent on developing and improving this airport, I wonder whether folks who keep complaining about the federal deficit and government spending would be willing to say, "Okay, we'll get by without this modernized, improved, safer airport" or even, "We'll pay for it ourselves."

Considering this, I began to wonder what would happen if taxpayers had to pass a bond issue to build an airport as they often do to build a school. Would they "opt out" of property tax limits to build it? Would local taxpayers think that this airport is so important to them and to their children that they would willingly increase their taxes in order to pay for it?

I rather doubt that. But if the federal government is paying 95% of the cost, then we tend to say, "Hey, this is a good deal! Go for it!" This may help explain how government spending gets out of hand. We want and need highways, military bases, airports, bridges, water projects, and we particularly want them where they help the economy of our county and state.  We refer to these things as "infrastructure." But just now when President Obama has been trying to promote government spending on infrastructure and on schools in order to create jobs, this idea is being rejected and blocked by political leaders who say we can't afford it and it wouldn't work anyway.

Yet when I look around western South Dakota and see people working not only at the airport but on roads and bridges, I have to think that projects like these have good results and pump real money into the economy.  In July when Congress adjourned without funding the FAA, a couple of billion dollars of construction projects were put on hold, thousands of people were laid off and the government was unable to collect taxes on airline tickets so hundreds of millions of dollars were lost. At the time, that did not seem like a good economic plan to me.          

The fact is, this economy needs help and people need help. We can't ignore this much longer. The gap between rich and poor in this country is real, and getting bigger. In Spearfish, there has been a 33% increase in people coming to the food bank in the last nine months. In Sioux Falls and Rapid City there has been an increase of 60% in the last three years. But Congress wants to cut $800 million from nutrition programs. Does this make sense?

Last March there was a cartoon in the Pioneer in which a fellow with a microphone was standing in a city square. He was saying, "It's eerily quiet in the square, no demonstrations are planned. Despite an economy in shambles, high unemployment, huge disparity in wealth and a reviled ruling class, there's not even a hint of a popular uprising. Americans may not be ready for an Egyptian style democracy."

Well, we're seeing people gather in the streets now in many places, including South Dakota. Maybe we should pay attention.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

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