Phonics training is among the winners as budget panel plows through spending requests

Joint Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Mike Derby, R-Rapid City, left, and Co-Chair Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, participate in a hearing Feb. 13, 2024, at the Capitol in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

Makenzie Huber and John Hult, South Dakota Searchlight

PIERRE – The Legislature’s budget committee endorsed a bill Friday to spend $3 million on phonics-based reading instruction for elementary teachers, and the committee also dealt with a raft of other proposals ahead of a deadline to advance spending bills to the House and Senate.

Earlier in the week, state Education Secretary Joe Graves told the Joint Appropriations Committee that state universities are already training the next generation of teachers in the phonics-based approach to instruction, which he referred to as the “science of reading” approach.

That approach was built from the results of a rigorous review of an approach called the “whole language model,” Graves said, which began to replace phonics-based reading instruction around 40 years ago. The creep of reading losses in the face of that shift forced the educational community to reevaluate the whole language approach, he said, which de-emphasizes memorization and the sounding out of words.

State colleges once again train future teachers in the phonics-first instructional approach, which Graves called a good sign for the future.

“We believe we’re already going to address the long-term issues,” Graves said. “What it doesn’t solve, however, is our current instruction.”

The Department of Education began to re-train current teachers in the science of reading model last August. The funds in House Bill 1022 are meant to fill a gap in training dollars that will emerge in the coming months as federal COVID relief dollars dry up.

The $6 million appropriation initially requested in the bill – lawmakers amended the amount down to $3 million on Friday morning – would have covered four years of training, at which point most teachers would be up to speed. It’s unclear how long funding might last with a $3 million allocation. Graves did not appear before the committee on Friday.

The committee endorsed the bill 12-4 and sent it to the Senate. Following are summaries of some other bills that received definitive action from the committee.

$5 million for victim service providers & shelters

The committee supported a bill that would allocate $5 million to sexual assault, domestic violence and children’s shelters in South Dakota. The bill is a result of decreased federal funding for such organizations over the last few years and minimal state funding for such services.

The Legislature previously approved $5 million in 2022, but that money quickly ran out, providers told South Dakota Searchlight earlier this year. The need for services has increased in recent years, as the number of victims served in South Dakota rose from 12,763 in 2017 to 15,375 in 2023.

Yankton Republican Rep. Jean Hunhoff, who serves as co-chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee, told lawmakers the grants would go through the Attorney General’s Office to address organizations’ needs that aren’t eligible for federal funding. That can include costs for keeping a crisis line open, case management and staffing, facility repair and maintenance, transportation, food, lodging and counseling services.

$5 million in technology grants for nursing homes

The committee supported a $5 million effort to provide technology grants to nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state with remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. The bill came as a recommendation out of the long term care summer study committee, which explored ways to support the industry.

The prime sponsor of the bill is Sen. Sydney Davis, R-Burbank.

“ARPA dollars are meant to be used for the recovery of these devastating economic effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and I can’t think of an industry more deserving of those funds,” Davis said, referencing the pronounced workforce shortage for nursing homes across the state and country.

The grants would be distributed by the state Department of Health and would need to be allocated by the end of 2024 to comply with federal ARPA funding stipulations.

$7 million in cybersecurity funding for counties, municipalities

One of the top priorities to come out of the county funding summer study committee was a recommendation to bolster local governments’ cybersecurity. The committee endorsed a $7 million effort to provide that support.

The $7 million price tag is roughly what South Dakota would have received from the federal government over the last three years if South Dakota had enrolled in a federal grant program aimed at bolstering local government cybersecurity, Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish, told South Dakota Searchlight. South Dakota is the lone state in the nation to not have signed up for the program, with Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration saying there were too many strings attached to the offer.

The amount would cover the development of a centralized email system, similar to an existing email system for schools. Leftover funds could be used to strengthen the state’s Project Boundary Fence program, where cybersecurity experts from Dakota State University test local governments’ cybersecurity and offer recommendations to better protect themselves.

Other bills

Summer child feeding program: The committee voted 13-4 to reject a bill that would have included South Dakota in a summer food program for children. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, said 36 other states have opted in to the program. South Dakota has chosen not to, even though the federal government would cover the food costs and half of the administrative costs to give low-income families preloaded cards to buy groceries during the summer months. Opponents expressed concerns about potential misuses of the cards and unforeseen expenses if the federal government reduces its share of the funding.

Lake AlvinHB 1064 would send $1.9 million to the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks “for the construction, reconstruction, renovation, and modernization of infrastructure at Lake Alvin and Newell Lake.” It passed 18-0.

Lake Hiddenwood damA bill seeking $3.75 million to rebuild the dam at Lake Hiddenwood near Selby failed to gain the support of the committee, despite a busload of local residents showing up to support the legislation. The dam was washed away several years ago by flooding. The committee voted 11-7 to defeat the bill.

Quantum CenterSB 45 would offer about $3 million for a Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology, which would be a partnership between multiple state universities. The dollar amount was revised downward from $6 million Friday morning before passing 18-0.

Richmond Lake damSB 70 would send $3.1 million in state money and $10.6 million in federal money to replace the Richmond Lake dam and spillway in Brown County and to pay for “general maintenance and repair of other state owned dams.” It passed 18-0.

Emergency declarations: An amendment to HB 1061 upped the funding to pay for the state’s disaster declarations to $4.3 million from $2.8 million. The amendment added money to pay for the latest South Dakota National Guard deployments to the southern border. Typically such bills “backfill” funds for emergencies addressed the previous year, but the amendment was meant to pay for the deployment up front, according to Rep. Tony Venhuizen, R-Sioux Falls, who moved the amendment. It passed 16-2.

Douglas School moneySB 204 would have sent $5 million to the rapidly growing Douglas School District, which serves the children of airmen and women at Ellsworth Air Force Base. It was defeated 11-7.

Custer West DamHB 1209 would have put $3 million toward the rebuilding of Custer West Dam, which Custer city officials said is important for flood mitigation in periods of heavy rainfall. It was defeated 16-2.

Water quality for the Northern Black HillsHB 1235 would have put $5 million in state funding into a Northern Black Hills water quality program, with grants offered for projects to mitigate potential pollution sources. It was tabled, effectively defeating it, on an 11-7 vote.

Prison cashSB 49 would move $132.5 million in general funds and $93.6 million in budget reserve money into the incarceration construction fund for the purpose of building a new men’s prison in Lincoln County. An attempt to amend the cost downward failed, and the bill passed 14-4. Earlier this week, state officials said a total of $567 is allocated for the project so far.

Sheep shedHB 1065 would help pay for a new sheep building on the South Dakota State Fairgrounds. It was amended down to $4 million from an original $8 million on Friday and passed 12-3.

Lifescape fundingHB 1093 would help LifeScape pay for a new facility in Sioux Falls for the developmentally disabled. The original bill would have put $8 million toward the project. It was amended to $2 million on Friday before passing 16-1.