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South Dakota legislators continue to brainstorm cost-cutting measures for public universities, including potential closure

But another lawmaker reminded colleagues that "the lowest bidder" doesn't necessarily return the "best quality work." The exchange came Friday in continuing conversations around slimming the Board of Regents budget, as per a 2020 law.

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Republican members of the South Dakota House of Representatives (from L to R), Reps. Sue Peterson, of Sioux Falls, Trish Ladner, of Hot Springs, and Steve Haugaard, of Sioux Falls, huddle prior to a pivotal vote late in the session on whether to accept a Senate-amended plan to establish a medical marijuana program. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota legislators got an update on a college-cost-cutting taskforce — with some pressing ahead with calls for eliminating one of the state's six public universities.

"We've had seriously declining enrollment in some of them," noted Rep. Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City, during a Joint Appropriations Committee meeting on Friday, April 23. "I just have a question... was it addressed? The issue of looking at whether or not... we need all the institutions that we have?"

After noting that direct question had not been broached in his administrative subcommittee on the cost-cutting taskforce so far, Rep. Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls, affirmed that, "No conversation (is) off the table."

"We got to talk about it and understand why we would or wouldn't proceed with that type of recommendation," said Karr.

For over a year, a bipartisan group of legislators, Board of Regents staff, and business leaders from around — and even outside — the state have been meeting in a taskforce established by Senate Bill 55, which was passed by the legislature in the 2020 legislative session.

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SB 55 calls for a task force to "examine the possible program and administrative efficiencies and cost effectiveness" across the university system, incorporating state colleges in Vermillion, Brookings, Madison, Aberdeen, Spearfish and Rapid City.

Last week, the task force met in Spearfish, and discussed potential savings for the state's budget, including cutting an office of legal counsel to pooling resources on library services.

On Friday, Heather Forney , a fiscal vice president with the central office in Pierre, repeated remarks last week as evidence of good-faith effort toward peeling back spending in higher education, including looking to consolidate campus food service programs with one vendor, making use of unused classroom space in Sioux Falls and Rapid City community colleges, and auditing the $10 million the state spends in utilities.

But members of the JAC, particularly those who aren't participating in the task force, honed in on bigger targets — namely, axing a public university, or at least its administration.

Sen. Jack Kolbeck , R-Sioux Falls, argued that Spearfish's Black Hills State University and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, in Rapid City, "have pretty much the same curriculums" and reiterated a call to "consolidate some of that administration."

Rep. Steve Haugaard , R-Sioux Falls, also argued "we've had a dramatic shift in our culture in the past few decades."

"When these schools were developed we had a pretty even population distribution across the state," said Haugaard, who noted it was "prudent" to "change [University of South Dakota at] Springfield into another institution."

The college in Springfield was shuttered and turned into a state prison under then-Gov. William Janklow in the mid-1980s.

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The growing chorus of calls for larger cuts eventually drew rebuttal from one lawmaker, Sen. David Johnson , R-Rapid City.

"I hear cost, cost, cost, expense, expense," said Johnson. " I think it's important to remember when the dollar bill is not the best measurement of efficiency."

He noted the use of multiple information technology vendors, for example, might thwart potential cyber attacks.

"In my business, lowest bidder is seldom the best quality work that is produced," concluded Johnson.

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