Wiik concerned with efforts to give “basic income” to South Dakota residents

April 18, 2024

Kevin Hardy, Stateline

South Dakota State Senator John Wiik of Big Stone City likes to think of himself as a lookout of sorts — keeping an eye on new laws, programs and ideas brewing across the states.

“I don’t bring a ton of legislation,” said Wiik, a Republican. “The main thing I like to do is try and stay ahead of trends and try and prevent bad things from coming into our state.”

This session, that meant sponsoring successful legislation banning cities or counties from creating basic income programs, which provide direct, regular cash payments to low-income residents to help alleviate poverty.

While Wiik isn’t aware of any local governments publicly floating the idea in South Dakota, he describes such programs as “bureaucrats trying to hand out checks to make sure that your party registration matches whoever signed the checks for the rest of your life.”

The economic gut punch of the pandemic and related assistance efforts such as the expanded child tax credit popularized the idea of directly handing cash to people in need. Advocates say the programs can be administered more efficiently than traditional government assistance programs, and research suggests they increase not only financial stability but also mental and physical health.

Still, Wiik and other Republicans argue handing out no-strings-attached cash disincentivizes work — and having fewer workers available is especially worrisome in a state with the nation’s second-lowest unemployment rate.

South Dakota is among at least six states where GOP officials have looked to ban basic income programs.

The basic income concept has been around for decades, but a 2019 experiment in Stockton, California, set off a major expansion. There, 125 individuals received $500 per month with no strings attached for two years. Independent researchers found the program improved financial stability and health, but concluded that the pandemic dampened those effects.

GOP lawmakers like Wiik fear that even experimental programs could set a dangerous precedent.

“What did Ronald Reagan say, ‘The closest thing to eternal life on this planet is a government program’?” Wiik said. “So, if you get people addicted to just getting a check from the government, it’s going to be really hard to take that away.”

The debate over basic income programs is likely to intensify as blue state lawmakers seek to expand pilot programs. Minnesota, for example, could become the nation’s first to fund a statewide program. But elected officials in red states are working to thwart such efforts — not only by fighting statewide efforts but also by preventing local communities from starting their own basic income programs.

Democratic governors in Arizona and Wisconsin recently vetoed Republican legislation banning basic income programs.

Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Harris County to block a pilot program that would provide $500 per month to 1,900 low-income people in the state’s largest county, home to Houston.

Paxton, a Republican, argued the program is illegal because it violates a state constitutional provision that says local governments cannot grant public money to individuals.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, a Democrat, called Paxton’s move “nothing more than an attack on local government and an attempt to make headlines.”

Meanwhile, several blue states are pushing to expand these programs.

Washington state lawmakers debated a statewide basic income bill during this year’s short session. And Minnesota lawmakers are debating whether to spend $100 million to roll out one of the nation’s first statewide pilot programs.