South Dakota lawmakers gave preliminary approval Tuesday to two bills that would reduce the size of Gov. Dennis Daugaard's proposed cuts in state aid to school districts.
The Senate voted 33-1 to use more than $12 million in unexpected tax collections to give school districts a one-time bonus.
The House followed by voting 47-21 to keep local property tax support for school districts at current levels. The measure passed on a mostly party-line vote, as Democrats argued that aid to schools should not be cut at all.
Daugaard originally proposed a 10 percent cut in aid to school districts as part of his plan to close a $127 million budget gap for the year beginning in July, but he has endorsed the two bills approved by lawmakers Tuesday because they would not harm his effort to balance the budget. The two measures would reduce the size of the cut to school districts to about 6.6 percent.
The House and Senate passed different versions of the funding bills, so the two chambers must work to pass both bills in identical form before the main run of the legislative session ends Friday.
School district officials have said a 10 percent cut could force them to cut some programs, lay off teachers or cut staff salaries. The measures approved Tuesday would at least soften the blow.
The Legislature's Appropriations Committee estimated this week that tax collections will bring in about $14 million more this year than Daugaard had earlier predicted. The measure approved by the Senate will give about $12.2 million of that to school districts to help cushion the blow from state aid cuts next year.
The measure will give schools an extra $97 per student, said Senate Republican Leader Russell Olson of Wentworth.
Senate Democratic Leader Jason Frerichs of Wilmot said the extra money will help, but will still leave schools short of funds.
"This is a nice step in the right direction, but in the end we have to remember there's still more work to be done," Frerichs said.
South Dakota uses a combination of state aid and local property taxes to fund the general operating expenses of school districts. The funding system requires general spending of a certain amount per student -- $4,804 this year -- from a combination of property taxes and state aid. After a school district collects property taxes using a standard statewide levy, it receives enough state aid to bring total spending up to $4,804.
Daugaard's proposal would have cut state aid and property taxes to reduce total support by 10 percent.
The bill passed by the House would keep school tax levies at about the same level next year, trimming the 10 percent cut to 8.6 percent. The extra spending endorsed by the Senate lowers the overall cut to 6.6 percent.
On a vote that mostly followed party lines, the House rejected the Democratic minority's proposal to leave state funding for school districts at the current levels.
House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said the state could tap reserve funds, trust funds or other sources to avoid a budget cut for schools. Education should be a priority that is protected from budget cuts, he said.
"What else are we saving this money for?" Hunhoff said.
House Republican Leader David Lust of Rapid City said no one is happy about cutting aid to school districts, but the Legislature must balance the budget by cutting spending. The state has made education a priority because 47 percent of the state budget goes to school districts, technical schools and universities, he said.
Once the state works through its financial difficulties, lawmakers will seek to boost funding for schools, Lust said.