Listening to South Dakotans Talking
How South Dakota collects and spends money should reflect its citizens’ shared values — the consensus about needed public services and how they should be financed. That belief prompted a facilitated community dialog process by the South Dakota Budget & Policy Project. Called South Dakotans Talking, it brought together 475 individuals in 16 communities across the state in late 2011.
Those who took part represented health care, public education, city government, nonprofit organizations, current and retired business owners and volunteers. Invited to attend as listeners, more than half of state lawmakers were present at one of the two-and-a-half hour session.
Participants first learned about state budget basics, then took part in nonpartisan budget discussions. Joy Smolnisky, who directs the South Dakota Budget & Policy Project, said the process demonstrated the ability of groups who don’t always agree to respectfully find areas of consensus.
“Reaching consensus about which state services we value and how we want to pay for them is the hard work of democracy,” Smolnisky said. “Public support for state and local fiscal policy increases when citizens have the opportunity to understand, discuss and have input on options.”
Residents followed a similar format in every community that allowed them to anonymously select from among the following topics for discussion:
• State budget formation process,
• K-12 education,
• Higher education,
• State revenue,
The sessions were hosted by local organizations, such as Chambers of Commerce or Community Based Services.
Cross-topic themes visible across all the discussion topic tables in order of frequency were:
- Find new revenue
- Re-examine consumption tax exemptions regularly
- Levy a sales tax on internet sales
- Support the initiated measure for a 1% sales tax increase dedicated to K-12 education and Medicaid
Citizen ideas and suggestions are summarized in Appendix C, pages 39-40 of the report.
Following the sessions, nearly 95 percent of those who took part indicated they had a much better or somewhat better understanding of the budget process. That assessment has prompted Smolnisky to expand South Dakotans Talking to other communities. She can be contacted at 605 367-9667 to schedule a session to learn about state budget basics and begin a consensus-building discussion.
Ellie Haerter of the Bush Foundation, a project funder, said her organization supports opportunities like South Dakotans Talking because “people understand better than anyone the current and future needs of their communities. The collective wisdom that came out of these community meetings can serve as a guide to the elected state leaders who bear the responsibility for ensuring a vital and stable future for South Dakota citizens.”
The Northwest Area Foundation also provided funding.
Click for link to table