It was President Grover Cleveland who said “a public office is a public trust.” The man who served as the United States’ 22nd and 24th president knew Americans expect their elected officials to do what is morally right and to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Still today, Americans believe that public servants should carefully and responsibly manage the things entrusted to their care.
Since first being elected five years ago, I have abided by this principle. With the help of state employees and legislators, South Dakota has a number of recent examples of good stewardship to share.
One example is the investment we are making in our roads. Our motor fuels tax had lost half of its purchasing power since it was last increased in 1999, and we saw that if we did not act, our roads and bridges would deteriorate. Time wasn’t on our side. Even though many of us in South Dakota generally oppose tax increases, we realized the longer we waited to act, the more costly it would be to repair our roads. So we came to a compromise that generated significant new revenue for construction costs without placing an unreasonable burden on our citizens. After months of discussions and studying the issue, the state Legislature passed a bill to raise $85 million in new revenue for our roads and bridges at both the state and local levels.
Another way we have been good stewards is by maintaining our buildings and better managing our properties. For instance, we recently made investments
We aren’t meant to simply succumb to the obstacles that are in front of us when born on a Reservation but rather to rise above those obstacles and make something of our lives using all the physical and intellectual tools at our disposal to fulfill that goal and ‘reason’ for coming from the other side. in our State Capitol Building. When we learned that the glass floor in the Capitol Rotunda and the stained glass throughout the building were both at risk of collapse, we spent money in the short-term to preserve the beauty of our Capitol Building and make improvements that will last for a century or more. Montana waited too long. They were forced to replace their Capitol glass floor, based on the same design as ours, with common ceramic tile.
Stewardship in our state has also meant responsibly managing our finances. In 2011, South Dakota was facing a structural deficit. We cut state spending by 10 percent for every agency and office of state government. My staff and cabinet secretaries took a 10 percent pay cut and I cut my own salary by 15 percent. It wasn’t pleasant. But making difficult choices, we balanced our state budget and placed South Dakota on a firm financial footing. For four consecutive years now we have ended our fiscal year with a surplus.
Since emerging from recession many states are balancing their budgets again. But far too many of those other states have long-term liabilities – unfunded pension obligations and large general obligation liabilities. In South Dakota we have neither of those things. Our state’s pension is in sound condition for present and future retirees. We are one of only a very few states in the nation that can say that.
Good stewardship does not always mean not spending. We exercised frugality in 2014, when we received an unexpected windfall of $33 million. We used that money to retire bonds early and to pay cash, rather than borrowing, for a new veterans’ home. We were able to increase spending on education and Medicaid more quickly because of the savings we enjoyed from those decisions.
Efforts of good stewardship may not always grab headlines. Stories of reinforcing the floor in the state Capitol and responsibly managing the state’s pension system don’t usually end up on the front page of the newspaper. But it’s this kind of stewardship that makes good government and it’s what the people rightly expect of their elected officials.
A column by
Gov. Dennis Daugaard