STAR sold for ‘10 cents on the dollar’

By Jason Ferguson

The South Dakota District 30 legislators were on hand to discuss a variety of topics with those in attendance at last Saturday afternoon’s cracker barrel at Custer Senior Center. From left are Rep. Julie Frye-Mueller, Sen. Lance Russell and Rep. Tim Goodwin.

Gender identity, the former State Treatment and Rehabilitation (STAR) Academy, the meth epidemic and even sanctuary cities were among a wide variety of topics touched on at the District 30 Legislative cracker barrel last Saturday afternoon at Custer Senior Center.

The cracker barrel, attended by around 30 citizens, was hosted by the Custer County Chronicle and the senior center. All three of District 30’s legislators — Reps. Tim Goodwin and Julie Frye-Mueller and Sen. Lance Russell — attended.

The sale of STAR Academy was the topic that hit closest to home for area residents, as the legislators confirmed that Gov. Dennis Daugaard had approved its sale after it was purchased at auction for $2.34 million early last month. The former academy, which was purchased by local backers, is set to become a clean air light industrial project.

Frye-Mueller expressed her displeasure with the sale, particularly at what she felt was a low price.

“We know people whose homes are worth more than that,” she said.

Frye-Mueller said it’s only a matter of time before another such facility is needed, which will cost a lot more than $2.34 million to construct. She pointed to the jail renovations/expansion going on in Pennington County that will cost around $11 million, with an additional $30 to $40 million if another tower is added to accommodate more inmates.

Russell said the juvenile justice reforms would be revisited once Daugaard leaves office. He said he  believes there is a need for places like STAR Academy. Schools are having problems with some children, he said, because they are essentially being sentenced to school, which causes disruptions.

Russell also pointed to the meth epidemic as a need for such facilities, saying the cost to deal with both juveniles and drug offenders has been passed down to counties that do not have the funding for it. It’s a revolving door of problems, he said. He also said the state sold STAR for “10 cents on the dollar.”

The discussion spilled over into a larger discussion on dealing with drug addicts, with one in the crowd questioning why addicts are not treated instead of being sentenced to the penitentiary.

Russell said recent legislation made it so drug offenders will spend time in the county jail rather than the penitentiary, with many spending up to a year in the county jail. The county has fewer resources, he said, which means less treatment and continuation of the cycle of reoffending without treatment.

“We have deliberately put all this burden on the local governments,” he said.

Low level facilities such as STAR Academy are needed for  this reason, Russell said. He added, however, that any reform will again have to wait until Daugaard leaves office. Since the initiatives were a major part of his time in office, Russell said, he would likely veto any reforms the legislature sends his way.

The legislators were asked whether they should receive a pay raise for their work in Pierre, with Goodwin saying he wasn’t even aware legislators got paid when he decided to run for office. The legislators are paid $6,000 per year plus per diem, but are considering raising that pay, with proponents of the raise saying it would attract more candidates to the position.

The issue will be put to a vote this November, which Goodwin called a “coward’s way out.” If legislators want a pay raise, he said, it should be brought up to the Capitol floor for debate.

Frye-Mueller said she did not vote to have the issue put on the ballot, as she was happy with just a per diem and said she felt she should not be paid for public service. However, she said some who serve need the money.

Goodwin has proposed legislation requiring lawmakers to take a drug test after hearing rumors that some lawmakers may be on drugs. He said he believes those against the bill condone drug use at the very least and may very well be on drugs.

The legislation was soundly defeated in a House committee, Goodwin said, but was approved by a 4-3 vote by a Senate committee. However, Goodwin said after that committee approved moving the bill to the Senate floor it was sent to another committee, where Goodwin said it will likely fail.

He said he and Sen. Neal Tapio (R-Watertown), have told legislators they would take donations to cover the cost of the testing and said polls show 91 percent of residents are in favor of lawmakers being drug tested.

“I just want the tests to be taken,” he said. “It’s really sad the people who set the laws feel they are above the laws.”

HB 1241, which would require additional fees on hybrid and electric vehicles, was briefly discussed. The idea behind the bill is that hybrid and electric vehicles, while not using as much or no gasoline, still create wear and tear on roads, which are largely paid for through gasoline taxes.

Frye-Mueller said she initially voted for the fee in committee, but will probably change her vote on the floor, as motorists already pay taxes for their vehicles, including an excise tax and, in most counties, a wheel tax.

Goodwin said the bill “was not ready for prime time” and that the South Dakota Department of Transportation is “filthy rich.” He called the DOT’s attempt to “try to tax something else” ridiculous.

Goodwin said he felt the legislation will die when it comes to a vote on the House floor and Russell said he would make every attempt to kill it in the Senate.

A possible ban on public schools teaching gender identity in elementary and middle schools was discussed, with Frye-Mueller saying she “never thought we would come to this kind of conversation in this country.”

Those kinds of discussions are best left between parents and their children, she said, and does not need to come at the expense of taxpayers.

Goodwin said he would sponsor a bill that requires school districts to come up with a policy. He said he believes you are the gender the doctor says you are when you’re born. Russell said he is against school districts wading into this topic.

A possible repeal of Marsy’s Law, which enhances victims’ rights in court, was touched on, with Russell saying the law has “got an incredibly bad rap” that was simply a ploy for bureaucrats to get more money out of their county commissions.

Russell said he supports the law, but counties such as Pennington and Minnehaha made a hubbub about how onerous the law is, when it’s not. He said there are already automatic notifications for victims and additional costs for the law have been exaggerated and bought into by the media.

“All too often the victims in South Dakota fell through the cracks in a lot of jurisdictions,” said Russell, an attorney.

Russell said some have used the law as a “boogeyman” to “pad their own budgets,” when it is something those jurisdictions should have been doing all along.

Sanctuary cities, for which not much can be done at a state level, were brought up by an attendee and drew the ire of Frye-Mueller, who said it’s not a good thing to succumb to the will and laws of other cultures or countries.

“I’m sick and tired of bending over backwards for others when our own get  get pushed aside,” she said. “I’m like Trump: America first.”

When a question about whether there are any cost-cutting measures being investigated, Frye-Mueller laughed and said the legislature has “an IV in its arm” when it comes to money. Goodwin concurred, saying many in government are constantly seeking ways to get more money out of citizens.

“We don’t have a money problem. We have a spending problem,” he said. “The way they try to get everybody to get money from you is amazing.”

Goodwin said well over 300 state employees make six figure salaries.

Russell said he, Frye-Mueller and Goodwin are three of around 15 to 20 legislators in Pierre who are not trying to create a new program or spend as much money as possible. Bureaucracy runs the government in Pierre, he said.

“I’m not overstating it,” he added.

The safety valve, he told the crowd, is the voters. Voters are what keep politicians from getting out of hand, he said, and as such, it is important that citizens do not allow the government to take away their right to or make it harder to refer laws to a vote, which is being pitched by some legislators at this year’s session.

“They fear the voters,” Russell said.