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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

January 28, 2019

Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Jan. 21

On transgender issue, choose facts over fear

Here we go again.

Despite past failed attempts to sanction discriminatory treatment of transgender high school students, the South Dakota Legislature is plodding forth with yet another ill-fated proposal.

Republican lawmakers Jim Bolin and Thomas Brunner have introduced legislation aimed at sinking a South Dakota Activities Association policy that allows transgender students to participate on sports teams that reflect their gender identities rather than the biological sex listed on their birth certificate.

The SDHSAA policy was crafted in 2015 after a survey showed that 77 percent of South Dakota high school superintendents wanted a statewide directive on the transgender issue, just as 44 other states have done. It calls for an independent hearing officer to review school and medical transcripts and personal statements before rendering a decision on eligibility.

Only a handful of athletes have gone through the process over a four-year period, which works against the “looming threat to competitive integrity” theory that Bolin and Brunner are putting forth.

This continues a recent trend of stoking fear amid discriminatory rhetoric when it comes to addressing the topic of transgender students in public schools.

First we heard that there would be sexual impropriety in school restrooms if gender identity was allowed to play out — a distasteful talking point that held no evidentiary weight. Then there was the proposal to use “visual inspection” as part of a process to officially determine a person’s gender, one of the low points in recent state legislative history.

It took a veto from former Gov. Dennis Daugaard to restore sanity when both the House and Senate passed the transgender bathroom bill in 2016, saving South Dakota from national backlash in the form of NCAA and corporate boycotts. Based on past statements, it’s not safe to rely on Kristi Noem to be the adult in the room on this issue, which places more onus on lawmakers to rely on research over rhetoric.

Bolin has attacked the SDHSAA policy in the past with bills that passed the House before stumbling in the Senate, where less reactionary leaders were mindful of potential lawsuits that could put local school boards in a bind, not to mention the harmful effect of further targeting transgender students.

Though there is no court decision directly pertaining to gender identification and high school sports, there are several rulings involving protected rights of transgender students at public institutions.

In a landmark decision last May, a federal judge in Virginia found in favor of a transgender student whose efforts to use the boys bathroom at his high school thrust him into a national debate. That ruling came despite attempts by the Trump administration to roll back Obama-era guidelines pertaining to Title IX, which prevents sex discrimination in public institutions.

The judge called the school board’s arguments in attempting to forbid the student to use the restroom corresponding to his gender identity “resoundingly unpersuasive.”

Those same Title IX protections govern high school athletics, which makes the assault on SDHSAA policy unsettling. Bolin has stated that his stance is about “fair competition,” pointing to instances where transgender athletes in other states won championships in sports such as wrestling and track.

But the level of documentation and references required in South Dakota makes it unlikely that a student-athlete will “cheat” the system for competitive gain. The very notion of going through the scrutiny and stigmatization of such a process just to win a trophy seems misguided at best.

As usual, there are basic themes of misinformation and fear-mongering surrounding this issue, and we’ve been here before. It’s our hope that true leadership emerges in the coming weeks to cut through the hysteria and bring legal and social realities to light, saving South Dakota from itself once again.

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Rapid City Journal, Jan. 20

Air Force should do right by those with fouled water

Trucks stop by weekly to deliver safe drinking water — 5 gallons per person — enough to cook and to sip. An alphabet soup of toxic chemicals mixed in with the tap water turns showers into sealed-mouth ordeals.

A few hundred affected residents have been essentially trapped — transformed into economic refugees — because pollution has made their homes unsaleable.

And this is in Box Elder, not Anbar Province.

The recent revelation that firefighting foams used at Ellsworth Air Force Base over decades has contaminated local groundwater is more than an inconvenience to affected residents. The Air Force should do everything necessary to make things right.

Familiarity with the snail-like pace of federal bureaucracy dims hopes for a quick resolution. The Air Force can neutralize threats in Syria in minutes, but addressing contamination on American soil sometimes takes longer than winning wars.

Meanwhile, the worries of affected residents get replenished as frequently as their jugs and bottles. Toxins released in the foam have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and other health problems. The effects on individuals will depend on length of exposure, toxic concentrations, genetics and lifestyles. There is no satisfactory answer to the burning question: What does it mean for me? Nobody truly knows and won’t for decades. Sorry. Try not to worry.

Who should be blamed? The Air Force purchased foam systems to protect airmen and airplanes. Pollution was unintended. Notification, however, took too long. In 2011, Ellsworth officials began to investigate whether firefighting foam had contaminated the base’s soil and water. In February 2013, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources sent the base a letter urging the testing of private wells “as soon as possible in the current calendar year.” Five-and-a-half years later, the base completed the first stage of tests.

It’s easy to imagine water reports stamped “urgent” stacked in cardboard boxes and rotating among lost desks deep inside the Pentagon. That won’t lessen the legitimate anger of parents whose children unknowingly drank polluted water while government dithered. The Air Force should aim higher.

The response has been more urgent since fault was finally acknowledged. The base has delivered water wherever tests reveal contamination above EPA advisory levels. Mid-term solutions are being explored, such as reverse osmosis or granulated active carbon filtering systems.

A likely long-term solution will involve hooking into Box Elder’s municipal water system, but that fix comes with a threatened water bill. “If we hook you up to public water, we pay for the tie-in and, I’m sorry to say, the water bill then is going to be yours to take care of,” Brian Howard of the Air Force Civil Engineering Center told residents in November.

“We can’t be a purveyor of water to the public,” Howard said. “The Air Force and U.S. government, we’re not in the position to be purveyors of water.”

If a private company had caused the contamination, the responsibilities would be clear. A judge would require the injured parties to be restored to pre-contamination conditions as quickly as possible and at no cost to those harmed. Polluters would be required to pay for any and all damages proven to have stemmed from the contamination, with indemnification required for future claims. Payment also could be expected for pain and suffering. Unnecessary delays in rectifying the problem would likely increase awards.

The Air Force should be held to no lesser standard. In light of circumstances, agreeing to purvey water in perpetuity — while outside the government’s normal mission — might be considered a real bargain.

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Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Jan. 23

Nursing home task force needed

If ever an issue currently facing South Dakota merited a special task force, it would be the nursing home crisis.

This issue has been a persistent one and it appears to be reaching a critical mass. There have been facility closures and there are concerns about the futures other facilities.

While lawmakers have a lot to contend with each session, this issue must be at or very near the top of the list.

But the way forward is not so simple.

Many nursing homes are straining to survive as they face mounting costs and a lack of Medicaid reimbursement funding. According to the American Health Care Association, South Dakota ranks dead last in the nation in terms of Medicaid reimbursement, as facilities receive $131 per patient per day when the average daily per-patient cost is $161. South Dakota News Watch reported recently that South Dakota nursing homes are losing $39 million per year.

Another issue is that about 55 percent of nursing home patients receive Medicaid, which is significantly lower than the national average of 62 percent. According to nonprofitquarterly.org, to help offset the shortfall, many nursing homes rely on private-pay patients, who pay far more for their care — roughly $7,000-$9,000 per month. But it’s an unreliable source of income.

Corporate, for-profit ownership is not always the best way to go, which is something nursing homes everywhere — and not just in South Dakota — are discovering. It’s estimated that for-profit companies own about 70 percent of all nursing homes in the country, but even many of these facilities are struggling. And that can result in cold, faceless business decisions and/or cost cutting that could prove detrimental to patients.

The struggles faced by nursing homes are already creating painful ripples that are being felt everywhere. In many small towns, these facilities are vital employers — perhaps even the biggest employer — and the closure of such a facility would damage the community financially. And of course, the closure of these facilities puts tremendous hardship on the patients and their families, who face the prospect of sending loved ones to different facilities perhaps located far away. This is more than inconvenient; it’s detrimental to the well-being of everyone involved.

And this problem is not going away. With an aging population, the crisis among nursing homes figures to only grow, and unless answers are found, the hardship and misery will, too.

This is not a new issue. At last Saturday’s District 18 cracker barrel, Rep. Ryan Cwach noted that he had done some research and found a legislative memo from 1996 discussing the funding problems for nursing homes. So, this has been a long time in the making.

That’s why a task force, similar to the one put together a few years ago to examine teacher pay in South Dakota, may be the best way to go. It could draw together input from everyone impacted by this issue and then work to determine some feasible course of action.

A task force would be a practical step forward to address an issue that will generate more headaches and hardships in the years to come.

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