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The funding of a civic engagement center is its own civics lesson


The funding of a civic engagement center is its own civics lesson

Jun 15, 2024 | 4:00 pm ET
By Dana Hess
The funding of a civic engagement center is its own civics lesson
Rep. Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, on the House floor during the 2024 legislative session. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Rep. Scott Odenbach has to wonder why he went to so much trouble. The Spearfish Republican was the driving force behind two legislative attempts to create a center for civic engagement at Black Hills State University. Little did he know, all he had to do was put in a good word with the Joint Appropriations Committee and the center that had been rejected multiple times by his colleagues in the Legislature would get the funding it needed.

Odenbach’s quest began in 2023 with a bill that sought to fund a Center for Exceptionalism at BHSU. “Exceptionalism” is a conservative buzzword that translates into something like: “Your country is fine, but ours is GREAT!”

That version of the center was charged with creating curriculum for K-12 schools that would teach “students to balance critical thinking with love of country.” Indeed, some of the backers of the bill waxed on about love of country to the extent that it seemed students who came up short in that department were destined for failure.

Because of its $150,000 price tag, the bill needed a two-thirds majority in the House or 47 favorable votes. It failed twice on 46-23 votes.

Civic engagement center moves forward for Black Hills State

This year, Odenbach edited “exceptionalism” out of the title of the center, instead hoping to capitalize on the reputation of a recently deceased and beloved professor to create the Nicholas W. Drummond Center for Civic Engagement. Odenbach called the new bill a “generalist” approach.

While the bill held fewer specifics about what the center would do, it inspired the same patriotic fervor in lawmakers who spoke in favor of the legislation, with one saying students need to know “why America is an affirmative good” and another claiming students need to “learn about the greatness of our democracy.”

Obviously even in its generalist version, exceptionalism was alive and well with the bill’s backers. The bill did appeal to Odenbach’s House colleagues, flying through that chamber with a 63-5 vote. It did not, however, get as warm a greeting in the Senate where it again failed by one vote, 16-17.

Now here’s where the story gets weird. Faced with legislative setbacks in not one but two legislative sessions, the civic engagement center got new life from the Joint Appropriations Committee. As noted in a South Dakota Searchlight story, committee members slipped BHSU an extra $926,406 in funding. The executive director of the Board of Regents told the appropriators that was surely enough to cover the estimated $200,000 in start-up money the center would need.

Lawmakers who had balked at funding the center approved the new dollar amount for BHSU, including the funding for the civic engagement center, when they approved the state budget bill.

In a Dakota Scout story, BHSU President Steve Elliott said the center would be tasked with developing curriculum, creating civics-focused events on campus and providing experiential learning opportunities as well as civic programming.

According to South Dakota Searchlight, BHSU will present the center’s progress to the Legislature during the 2025 session. If it’s already up and running, perhaps the center’s representative can explain the civics lesson inherent in the center’s creation. Maybe that person can justify how the center was created and funded by a Legislature that proved multiple times that it didn’t think such a center was a good idea.

Maybe that civics lesson can explain to lawmakers what two year’s worth of committee hearings and floor debates were worth. Maybe that civics lesson could teach lawmakers the actual significance of the votes they took after their wishes were so casually flouted by appropriators who were willing to spend money on a project that lawmakers rejected three times.

Maybe the civics lesson here is that the real power in Pierre is located with the people who control the state checkbook. It would seem that the rest of the Legislature is just going through the motions.


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