Democrats Question Legality of Cuts to Extension Service

A group of Democratic legislators are asking for a legal opinion about whether cuts to the Cooperative Extension Service might be illegal.

The cuts, made by the Legislature this year to eliminate a $127 million deficit, abolish the position of county extension educator and close several agricultural research stations. Under a reorganized Extension Service, there will be seven regional offices around the state, including one in Rapid City.

State Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot, and state Reps. Frank Kloucek, D-Scotland, and Peggy Gibson, D-Huron, believe those cuts may violate the mission of the state university system imposed by federal law.

The 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act established land-grant colleges, of which South Dakota State University is one, with the mission to promote learning in the area of agriculture. The 1914 federal Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension service across the country, tied in with the land-grant colleges. It requires states to match federal Cooperative Extension funds or lose their Extension funding.

“This appears to stray away from the intent and purpose of those acts, to provide services to the agriculture communities and to educate and improve their lives,” Kloucek said of South Dakota’s cuts to Extension.

The three Democrats have submitted a formal request to Attorney General Marty Jackley for a legal opinion about whether the Extension cuts violate federal law.

In that request, they contend that the cuts mean “the Extension Service will not be able to provide more than the most rudimentary and inadequate extension services to the agricultural community” and argue that South Dakota is “obligated by federal law … to provide an appropriate level of (Extension) services.”

If Jackley agrees to issue an opinion, he said the issue will be assigned to an individual lawyer to write a legal memorandum, then reviewed by a committee in the Attorney General’s office before Jackley himself signs off on the opinion.

Such an opinion would have force of law, Jackley said, though it could be superseded by a court order or by an act of the Legislature.

“There is some case law that talks about when there’s an attorney general opinion and somebody goes against it … you are proceeding at your own risk,” Jackley said.

Frerichs said the Democrats hope that a favorable opinion from Jackley, a Republican, would lead SDSU to reconsider its Extension cuts.

“I would hope that the Board of Regents would be involved, along with SDSU … to find ways to revise their plan to fit within federal requirements,” said Frerichs, the minority leader in the state Senate.

Jackley has not yet received the formal request for his opinion, and declined to comment on the merits of the application.

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