South Dakota gubernatorial candidates spar for first timeby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
South Dakotans got their first glimpse of this years governor's battle. Candidates squared of in the first debate at DakotaFest in Mitchell. Incumbent Republican Governor Mike Rounds and Democratic challenger Jack Billion talked about issues important to South Dakota voters from abortion and capitol punishment to ethanol.
Mitchell, S.D. — Governor Mike Rounds used his time in front of a sparse audience at DakotaFest to list his accomplishments. The Republican is seeking a second four year term. Rounds fit his opening statement to the audience by talking agriculture.
"We've worked with you to create the South Dakota Certified Beef Program," says Rounds. "We've worked with you to put together the turkey plant in Huron right now. We think that's a great example of people working side by side to add value by actually working our commodities within our state. Keeping the profits here," he says.
Rounds also used the forum to announce that South Dakota was selected for a federal agricultural pilot project to scientifically study the effect of the drought. Rounds says it not only will look at moisture data but also the impact drought has on forage. Counties west of the Missouri River are part of the study.
The discussion of rural issues quickly changed to more statewide issues like education. Fifty-nine school districts have sued the state to increase funding. Rounds says lawmakers do the best they can with the money they have. He says 49 cents of every dollar of state money goes to education.
Democratic challenger Jack Billion says South Dakota lags behind every surrounding state when it comes the state funding education and teachers are paid the least in the country. Billion accuses the Rounds administration of lacking leadership. He says there needs to be a change in philosophy when it comes to education.
"We equate education and what we can do to money. How much we're willing to spend," says Billion. "Actually what we have to do is turn that equation around and say hey, education is there for our kids, for our small communities and for our families and how do we pay for it," he says.
Billion also accuses Rounds of lacking leadership in the state's abortion debate.
The Republican governor signed legislation that bans nearly all abortions in South Dakota. The law was drafted specifically to force the issue into the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, opponents collected enough signatures to force a public referendum. Rounds has now stepped away from the controversy saying it's now up to voters to decide on the ban.
Democrat Jack Billion says if he's elected he'll stand behind every bill he signs into law.
"I'll sign it because I think it's best for the people of the state of South Dakota and has to become law. Not because I want to see us spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money possibly defending an unconstitutional law," says Billion.
Governor Mike Rounds ignored most of the jabs directed at him. The Republican incumbent had 60 percent support in the most recent polling. He told the gathered farmers that rural economic development in South Dakota is heading in the right direction.
He says ethanol production is one example. There are currently 11 ethanol plants in the state. Five of those are expanding and five more are in different stages of being built.
"Every single one of those plant opportunities provides sustenance for small communities. Provides not only job opportunities but more money coming in for investors," says Rounds. "South Dakota farmers and ranchers have a higher percentage of investment in these type of plants than in any other state in the nation with over 8,000 farm families," he says.
Constitutional Party Candidate Steve Willis and Libertarian Party Candidate Tom Gerber also participated in the DakotaFest debate. Willis and Gerber stuck to introducing themselves and their respective party platforms.
Election day isn't until November but South Dakota voters can cast ballots in a little more than a month. Early voting replaces absentee ballots. Voters no longer need a reason to cast an early ballot.
Besides the race for governor, voters will also decide the U.S. House race, legislative seats and 11 referenda.