Capitol Conversation: Looking back at the 2021 legislative session with KELOLAND’s Bob Mercer

KELOLAND.com Original

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — There was a little bit of everything in the 2021 legislative session.

Only Veto Day remains on the calendar (March 29) for the 96th session — one that’ll be remembered as historic for being accomplished during a global pandemic as well as the amount of one-time government spending.

Back in late December and early January, an early debate unfolded over how the in-person session would unfold and what COVID-19 protocols would be in place at the state Capitol. 

The Senate chamber adapted masks or face-coverings would be “expected” while the House “encouraged” mask wearing when in close contact. Those rules remained the same throughout the 36 Legislative Days, even after an outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in eight lawmakers testing positive. 

In his closing remarks, House speaker Spencer Gosch said lawmakers did something no one thought they could do by holding a full in-person session during a pandemic. 

“They succeeded,” KELOLAND Capitol News Bureau Reporter Bob Mercer said. “It went better than expected. There were some hiccups along the way.” 

Mercer has been covering legislative sessions for more than three decades. Along with the concerns about slowing the spread of COVID-19, Mercer noted the 2021 session will be remembered for all the extra tax money available for lawmakers to use. 

Several lawmakers said the year was unprecedented with all the excess money. Gov. Kristi Noem, Republican and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate all pointed to using the extra money for investments in broadband and the needs-based Freedom scholarship  

“In a normal year, those wouldn’t be possible,” Mercer said. “South Dakota’s economy had a jolt of growth that was abnormal because of all that federal money coming in.” 

Despite seeing a benefit from extra dollars available for government use, Mercer said not to expect the legislature to get used to having extra tax-payer money. Lawmakers are required to get a two-thirds majority to raise a tax or create a new tax. 

“They’re not a tax and spend group by any means,” Mercer said about South Dakota lawmakers. “Next year, they’ll get back to normal which is sweeping the corners looking for a penny or two here or there.” 

Marijuana to remain an issue for future sessions 

Voters in South Dakota made history when they passed two marijuana measures at the same time in November 2020. Constitutional Amendment A, which would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in the state, passed 54%-46% and Initiated Measure 26  which will legalize medical marijuana passed 69%-31%. 

Gov. Noem opposed both measures back in November. Amendment A was struck down by a Noem-appointed circuit court judge and the fate remains in the hands of the state Supreme Court. 

Proponents for Amendment A have said the circuit judge’s ruling about not meeting the one-subject rule and requiring a constitutional convention will set a dangerous precedent that future elections will be contested going forward. 

“It puts the court in this unusual political environment,” Mercer said. “We’ll find out if they agree with that or not.” 

While lawmakers did pass $4.1 million to set up state enforcement and regulation of medical marijuana, how enforcement and regulation will be covered in future years is not known at this time.  

“You have this new cost for the government but no way to fund it,” Mercer said. “That’s a bind, the administration is in.” 

When assessing both Amendment A and IM 26, the Legislative Research Council projected $10 to $15 million could be the projected peak tax revenue for each program once fully developed in the market. Mercer noted it will take years until the marijuana programs would reach those projections.   

House Bill 1100 which would’ve delayed the implementation of medical marijauan by one year failed to pass through both chambers, leaving only the framework of IM 26 in place when it goes into effect on July 1.

The South Dakota Supreme Court has not set a date to hear oral arguments on Amendment A. After the arguments are held, a decision would be handed down at another later date.

Redistricting and summer studies 

Many lawmakers won’t remain in Pierre, but that doesn’t mean their work representing citizen’s needs will stop. 

In 2021, redistricting will take place as required by state law. Every 10 years, the South Dakota Constitution demands legislative districts are created and consist of “compact, contiguous territory and shall have population as nearly equal as is practicable, based on the last preceding federal census.” The state’s constitution also gives the power of creating these districts to the legislature as well as a deadline — by Dec. 1 every 10 years from Dec. 1, 1991. 

There are formal redistricting committees in both the Senate and the House. Public meetings have been scheduled in Rapid City, Mission, Mobridge, Aberdeen, Watertown and Sioux Falls on redistricting. 

Lawmakers have said delays from the US Census Bureau on the 2020 Census may impact meeting deadlines. 

A total of 35 legislative districts will be created and Mercer said Sioux Falls and Rapid City districts will likely grow as populations have increased in those two areas the most over the past 10 years. 

Along with redistricting, the South Dakota Executive Board will determine legislative summer studies on certain topics and issues. 

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