Tuition freezes, implementing an income tax, a Good Samaritan bill and approaches to sexual assault cases were front and center at the Cross Media Council’s District 17 debate Monday night in the Al Neuharth Media Center.
State senate Democratic candidate Michelle Maloney and Republican candidate Arthur Rusch, and state representative candidates Ray Ring, D-S.D., and Democratic candidate Marion Sorlien attended the debate. State representative Republican candidates Sheri Kaufman and Nancy Rasmussen were invited to the debate, but did not attend because of conflicts.
Maloney, Rusch and Sorlien said they would be in favor of some sort of tuition freeze for South Dakota colleges. Ring said keeping tuition costs low is a high priority, but perhaps not the highest priority for the Legislature.
“I’m not going to flat out say I’m in favor of freezing tuition,” Ring said.
He did, however, voice support for financial aid.
“We need to do something in this state about need-based scholarships,” Ring said.
Sorlien, a retired teacher, said education is an important tool for economic development.
“We really need to look at our priorities,” she said.
Maloney suggested a six-year tuition freeze to help students better prepare financially for their education. Rusch mentioned low tuition rates from when he attended college, and said the issue presents a tough balancing act for the Legislature.
“We need to make higher education more affordable,” Rusch said.
The candidates also answered questions regarding state universities handling sexual assault cases appropriately.
Maloney said incentives would have to start with students, while Rusch highlighted his experience in the criminal justice system as a States Attorney, Special Assistant Attorney General, City Attorney and judge.
“Certainly there are problems, but I have not seen those problems at the University of South Dakota,” Rusch said.
The candidates did not directly address any legislative changes, but some mentioned societal attitudes toward sexual assault.
“We seem to be very ready to make the victim the guilty person,” Sorlien said.
Candidates also voiced their opinions on Good Samaritan policy — legislation that would protect individuals seeking help for an intoxicated friend from being prosecuted.
“I would definitely support a Good Samaritan bill if this was a way to save somebody’s life,” Ring said.
Maloney, who has owned several local businesses, including a bar, said she would also support the bill, as would Sorlien, who voiced support if the bill would influence individuals to seek help for a friend in need.
Rusch expressed concerns regarding the bill, and said it could become a “slippery slope.” He did not know of a single case in Clay County where someone seeking help for a friend was prosecuted.
“There are just so many circumstances,” Rusch said.
The candidates also discussed increasing economic development in Clay County, from adding incentives to providing infrastructure.
Maloney highlighted economic process the community has already made.
“We’ve worked really hard to make Vermillion a 12-month economy instead of a nine-month economy,” Maloney said.
Ring, an incumbent who taught business at USD for 33 years, continued discussion about researching the state’s tax structure across multiple questions, including one about the possibility of adding a personal income tax.
Ring said the issue is a non-starter at the state level, and would not be discussed. He continued in his rebuttal by saying the current tax structure places the burden on the lower classes, agreeing with statements Sorlien said earlier in the debate.
The candidates also addressed questions from the audience surrounding issues such as a possible abolition of the death penalty and arming teachers with guns.
Sorlien, Maloney and Ring all expressed support toward abolishing the death penalty.
“What a burden that is for the judge, the jury and the whole of society,” Sorlien said. “…Unless you’re willing to push the plunger…you should not be in favor of the death penalty.”
Rusch did not directly say if he was in support of eliminating the policy or not, but referred to a case where he sentenced a man to death.
“You end up with a different perspective on the death penalty,” Rusch said.
Rusch highlighted the pressure the decision can place on juries, and said he came out of the trial as less of a supporter of the death penalty.
First-year Satara Atwood attended the debate for her speech class. As a recently registered voter in the district, Atwood said the debate was educational.
“I didn’t really know anything about their views,” Atwood said. “It makes me want to go back and do some research.”
Around 40 students and community members attended the debate, sponsored by several USD student organizations including the Student Government Association, Political Science League, College Democrats, College Republicans and Cross Media Council.
Questions for the debate were created by the Cross Media Council and sourced from Twitter. Initial answers were limited to 1:30 with rebuttals set at 30 seconds, and one minute for closing statements.
(Photo: District 17 candidates (from left to right) Michelle Maloney, Ray Ring (D-S.D.), Marion Sorlien and Arthur Rusch answer questions from the Cross Media Council Monday night in the Al Neuharth Media Center conference room. Anna Glenski / The Volante)