It has been a year to remember, seemingly for all the wrong reasons. COVID-19 devastated families across our country. In other states, violent riots and looting tore communities apart. And it seems like political divisions are only increasing. But as I look back on 2020, I want to focus on South Dakota’s opportunities. I want to highlight some of the tremendous things that we accomplished together this year.
South Dakota experienced a truly incredible year. Despite the pandemic forcing businesses to adjust their practices, we’re wrapping up this year in perhaps the strongest economic position in the country. Our unemployment rate is back down to 3.5%. Our businesses cut the fewest hours and the fewest wages of any state in America, and they also had the lowest decrease in demand for their products and services. South Dakota’s economy took a hit when COVID came, just like every state, but we’ve come roaring back stronger than ever before.
Unlike much of the country, South Dakota is seeing increasing tax revenues. In fact, we ended the 2020 fiscal year with a budget surplus and are able to look ahead to 2021 from a position of strength, which allows us to find ways to strengthen our state even further.
Much of this is a result of the unique approach that South Dakota took to this virus. We didn’t order businesses to close. I didn’t demand that you all shelter-in-place. I didn’t even define what an essential business was; I don’t have the authority to do that. Instead, I gave you the science, facts, and data, and the people of our great state overwhelmingly responded. Thank you for validating my trust in you.
In 2020, we strengthened families in South Dakota. We implemented paid family leave for all state employees so that they can invest in their families by taking the necessary time to develop stronger bonds with newborn and adopted children. When there were doubts about returning to classrooms in the fall, we worked together to make sure that we could get our students back to school in as safe a manner as possible so that they can be in the very best learning environment. And we’ll continue working to strengthen South Dakota families in 2021.
2020 was a great year for South Dakota’s outdoors. We had a record number of visitors to our state parks. In fact, Custer State Park eclipsed 2 million visitations for the first time in its history. Hunting and fishing participation increased, reversing a long trend. Both resident and non-resident hunting licenses went up, and I’m particularly excited that we had a record number of licenses sold for youth mentored hunting.
South Dakota had a tremendous opportunity to showcase its outdoor beauty in 2020 when we brought fireworks back to Mount Rushmore for the first time in more than a decade. We welcomed President Trump to our shrine to democracy. It was a celebration our country sorely needed, and it was a terrific reminder of the freedoms that make America the most special country the world has ever seen.
In retrospect, 2020 was a great year because of its challenges. Challenges give us the opportunity to adapt; to become stronger; to learn and grow as individuals and as a state. 2020 challenged me as a leader, but I’m grateful for that. We emerged from challenges stronger than ever before. I’m excited for what we’ll do together in 2021.