South Dakota legislative round-up: Five items you missed this week
Joint chamber addresses, Medicaid expansion and first bills moving. Here are five things you may have missed during the legislature's first week
PIERRE, S.D. — It’s Syllabus Week in the 10-week legislative session, and the festivities started off slowly, at least compared to the lawmaking pace that the body will settle in over the coming weeks.
Here are five important items you may have missed during the initial days of the 98th legislative session.
1. ‘Pigs come to the trough” with millions in extra revenue
On the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 11, Tom Brunner, one of two candidates vying to earn the role of chair of the South Dakota Republican Party when the State Central Committee meets on Saturday, Jan. 14, held a virtual town hall to discuss his principles and priorities for the role.
In one aside, the former legislator shot from the hip on the difficulties that come with combining a large pot of dollars sitting in the legislature’s lap and the ubiquity of special interests in the halls of the State Captiol.
“It's hard to govern when you have a budget surplus,” Brunner said. “As we used to say, the pigs come to the trough when you show up with a bucket of feed.”
With hundreds of millions in one-time and ongoing surplus revenue due to still-high growth in sales tax collections, several bills have already been submitted that look to capitalize on these dollars for pet projects.
From $13 million to expand the Sanford Underground Research Facility to $70 million to upgrade the state’s 35-year-old accounting system to $12.8 million in extra appropriations to cover increased building costs on the already-appropriated $69 million for the planned construction of a new Public Health Laboratory in Pierre, these dozens of spending priorities will be juggled in competition with a desire for conservative financial planning.
“I look at those as sort of a cushion if everything doesn’t go exactly as planned,” said Rep. John Mills, of Volga, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
2. Treading carefully with Medicaid expansion
During an introductory appropriations meeting geared toward understanding the big picture of the budget, it became clear that several lawmakers are already skiddish as they prepare for the costs of Medicaid expansion in the state.
The Bureau of Finance and Management assured legislators that it had purposefully over-estimated by 10% both the enrollment and costs associated with the expansion of Medicaid to any South Dakotan below 138.5% of the federal poverty line.
And unlike the Legislative Research Council, which before the election estimated net savings to the state in the first two years and about $22 million in net state cost the next three years, the Bureau of Finance and Management estimated the state cost at $12 million in the first year and up to $80 million in the fifth year with relatively negligible savings on other populations.
“I led the opposition to Medicaid expansion, and when I said [an annual cost of] $80 million in the [pre-election] debate, my opponent said there's no way we would ever get to that,” Big Stone City Rep. Jon Wiik, who chaired the No on Amendment D campaign, told Forum News Service on Jan. 10. “[The BFM presentation] reaffirmed everything I believed; this is going to be way more expensive than the proponents said.”
It’s unclear at the moment how the legislature will move forward with their constitutionally mandated duty to fund the program. They could, for example, put away some of the extra federal match dollars during the first two years of expansion to cover some of the costs, an idea that made it through the Senate last year but failed in the House.
“I think we’ll have more details on it and a better handle next week,” said Sen. Jim Bolin, of Canton, who sits on appropriations.
The Department of Social Services, which will administer the expanded Medicaid program, will present to the Joint Appropriations Committee early next week.
3. State of the Tribes turns into rock fight
With a half-hour speech containing several barbs at actions of state government and the legislature, Crow Creek Chairman Peter Lengkeek did not leave a good taste in the mouth of the governor’s staff.
Ian Fury, the chief communications officer for Gov. Kristi Noem, unloaded on the chairman in a press release several hours after the speech concluded.
“[Gov. Noem] has repeatedly made efforts to reconcile our differences and come together as one state. I wish the same spirit of shared culture and reconciliation was present at today’s State of the Tribes address,” Fury wrote in the lengthy statement. “Chairman Lengkeek of the Crow Creek tribe chose instead to deliver a message of division and perpetuate false narratives about Gov. Noem and her administration.”
While Lengkeek used his audience with the joint chambers of the legislature to make clear his opposition to contentious issues like the proposed social studies standards and his feeling that there are problems “more immediate in nature” than, for example, last year’s transgender athletes bill — an “unprompted diatribe” implying Lengkeek “wants boys to play girls’ sports,” as Fury put it — he also advanced some policy proposals that several Republican legislators appear to agree with.
For one, several Republicans are sponsoring a bill seeking to improve the in-state behavioral health workforce. That bill, which puts $20 million toward scholarships that come with conditions such as entering the behavioral health workforce and staying in South Dakota, is headed for a committee hearing as early as next week.
4. State of the Judiciary shines light on rural public defender shortage
Among several priorities discussed during the State of the Judiciary on Jan. 11, Chief Justice Steven Jensen drew attention to the difficulties that counties are having with affording public defenders to fulfill the legal rights of defendants without an attorney.
The difficulty of finding and paying for these attorneys is especially glaring in rural areas.
“Judges particularly in rural areas are having more and more difficulty finding counsel to represent defendants in criminal cases,” Jensen said. “This past year, I was approached by county groups about their challenges relating to indigent defense in South Dakota.”
According to Jensen, although these costs are supposed to be mitigated by funds set aside from criminal fines in the state, this past year South Dakota counties paid out nearly $21 million for indigent case funds but were reimbursed just 2-3% of that cost.
“Many states have an independent board or other governmental entity responsible for the overall management at the public defender's system on a statewide basis to contain costs, manage case loads and ensure the appointment of competent counsel,” Jensen said.
While he did not put his weight behind a particular solution, he did suggest some sort of study commission to find a solution to the issue, potentially through a regionalization approach that helps share costs in rural counties.
5. Unified Senate moves their first piece of legislation
After the Senate Commerce and Energy Committee voted 8-1 in favor of bringing Senate Bill 41 to the floor, the Senate voted 29-2 with four excused to pass the $200 million in housing infrastructure dollars, the first major movement of legislation this session. Senate Bill looks to put $200 million in grants and loans toward developing housing infrastructure.
“In short, South Dakota businesses need more workers,” Sen. Majority Leader Casey Crabtree said on the floor in support of the bill. “In order to get more workers, we need more infrastructure for housing.”
Sen. Tom Pischke, of Dell Rapids, rose in opposition to the bill, believing the bill was an example of “government intruding into the free market” and competing with private enterprise, realities he said infringed on the party platform. Yet Pischke, one of the Senate’s most conservative lawmakers, understood the deck was stacked against him on the issue.
“When there’s a tidal wave coming at you, it’s best not to make your speech too long,” Pischke said to began his opposition speech.
Crabtree responded to Pischke’s remarks pointing out that the development of infrastructure to foster economic growth is one of the tenets of the party.
The smaller chamber promises to be more unified than its counterpart on the other side of the State Capitol building, where 14 legislators opposed the nomination of House Speaker Hugh Bartels during what is usually a drama-free vote.
After taking a winding road nearly three years long, the clarifying housing legislation now moves to the House side, where the bill’s backers hope it will be heard in committee and debated on the floor before the end of next week.
“In a weird way, after all of that, this is a really a good example of how the process could and should work, and I hope we can get this to the governor's desk as soon as possible,” Sen. Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown, the top Republican in the Senate, said.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.