In the coming weeks, governors across the country will give speeches outlining their budget proposals. Following months of economic lockdowns, sheltering in place, and huge numbers of businesses being forced to close permanently, many of my peers are likely not looking forward to these addresses. Some will propose tax increases. Others will take on more debt, and a few will be forced to make significant budget cuts. In South Dakota, as we have done throughout this pandemic, we will forge a different path.
Rather than following the pack and mandating harsh rules, South Dakota provides our residents with information about what is happening on the ground in our state—the science, facts and data. Then, we ask all South Dakotans to take personal responsibility for their health, the health of their loved ones, and—in turn—the health of our communities. The state hasn’t issued lockdowns or mask mandates. We haven’t shut down businesses or closed churches. In fact, our state has never even defined what an “essential business” is. That isn’t the government’s role.
Since March, many of my peers have attempted to stop the spread of the virus without considering their citizens’ social or mental well-being or the state of their economies. Even amid a pandemic, public policy ought to be holistic. Daily needs must still be met. People need to eat and keep a roof over their heads. And they still need purpose. That means policy makers cannot have tunnel vision. They must balance public-health concerns with people’s mental and emotional needs, their economic livelihoods and social connections, and liberty, among many other important factors.
Many in the media have criticized this approach, labeling me ill-informed, reckless and even a “denier.” Some have asserted that South Dakota is “as bad as it gets anywhere in the world” when it comes to Covid-19—a demonstrably false statement. At the same time, my critics praise states that issued lockdowns, mandated masks and shut down businesses—lauding these states as having taken the “right” steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.
As we continue to see spikes move throughout the country, the course of the virus doesn’t seem to be quantifiably different in the states that, according to the media, did everything “right.”
Despite harsh lockdowns in Illinois, coupled with a mask mandate since May 1, that state experienced a new single-day record in Covid-19 deaths on Dec. 2, and its active case counts are higher, on a per capita basis, than South Dakota’s has ever been.
New Jersey, which still has had the most deaths in the country per capita, has had a mask mandate in place since June and has imposed $15,000-a-day fines on businesses that refuse to close. Still, over the last two weeks of November, its hospitalizations increased by 34%, a six-month high.
California imposed a mask mandate in June and has some of the harshest lockdown orders in the country, including shutting off residents’ water if they have too many visitors. Despite that, the AP recently reported Covid hospitalizations have increased nearly 90% and could triple by Christmas.
Until we have an effective and widely available vaccine, the virus will spread—science tells us that. That’s one of the reasons why, at the outset, the nation’s goal was to manage hospital capacity. In South Dakota, we have kept our focus on this goal, and continued to ensure our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed and can serve their communities well.
South Dakota is entering 2021 in one of the strongest financial positions in the country. At 3.6%, our state has the third-lowest unemployment rate in the nation. We closed out this past fiscal year with a $19.1 million surplus. And we are unveiling ways in which we can further improve our state, including a more than $130 million investment in infrastructure improvements, paying off more than $21 million of debt, which my administration inherited, and bolstering our rainy-day fund, as good stewards of the public’s money should do.
In contrast, Illinois plans to borrow $2 billion from the Federal Reserve. New Jersey, which already has the highest debt per taxpayer in the nation, is issuing an additional $4.3 billion in bonds. And New York is looking at a nearly $60 billion revenue shortfall. Each of these states is likely also counting on federal bailouts to keep them afloat.
South Dakota won’t be taking on billions of dollars in new debt. We won’t be raising taxes on residents or businesses. And we won’t be looking to Congress to send us more stimulus money.
Given the oath I swore as governor, it is my responsibility to respect the rights of the people and to manage state operations in a balanced, prudent fashion that reflects the realities on the ground here. I am confident that we have and will continue to come out ahead of many other states in important measures of public health, economic well-being and liberty.
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