PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Democrats in the state Legislature have not been impressed with Gov. Kristi Noem’s approach during the 2023 session.
While the balance of power in Pierre tilts heavily towards Republican members (94-11), lawmakers in the minority party said they were promised communication with the governor’s office during the 38-day session.
“We have not seen them once,” Democratic Rep. Erin Healy told reporters during a news conference Thursday.
In her previous four years, the Republican governor has also held weekly news conferences with members of the South Dakota media during the legislative session. There have been no news conferences with journalists covering the legislative session.
At the one public bill signing hosted by Noem, reporters were invited to ask questions only about that specific law, an $18 million reduction in employers’ payments to the state re-employment fund.
“The public deserves to know what is happening in our state government, on all levels, whether that is judiciary, legislative or executive branch,” Healy said.
On Twitter, Noem spokesman Ian Fury said members of the media were invited to a bill signing for HB-1011 and to ask questions about the bill but media members declined. They were asked to leave the room when the next group came in for the signing of SB-41, which corrected language from a 2022 bill involving $200 million in housing funding.
Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba said SB 41 wouldn’t have passed with the emergency clause without support from all seven House Democrats.
“When she had a bill signing, she didn’t have any of us there,” Nesiba said. “There’s a lot more we can do to keep that conversation going. I’m disappointed that the governor isn’t here every week. She should be here every week.”
This week, Noem did speak to South Dakota Public Broadcasting about her passion and support to cut the sales tax on food.
Fury told KELOLAND News Thursday if there are any news conferences held by Noem, members of the media will be informed in advance.
Worries about public education
Public K-12 education is slated to receive a 5% increase in state aid in Noem’s proposed 2024 budget, but education lobbyists highlighted problems schools are dealing with during Wednesday’s Joint Committee on Appropriations meeting.
Data from the National Education Association shows South Dakota is behind all six neighboring states in teacher pay. South Dakota’s average teacher salary is $49,547, while Minnesota’s is at $66,561.
“I worry that one of these days that Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, is actually going to be paying their teachers more on average than we do here in South Dakota,” Nesiba said. “We’re so far behind over five years and part of this is by design.”
Healy said an 8% increase to state aid for public education would be vital.
“We’re looking at a 5% increase, that is simply not enough to get our school districts to the point where they need to be in order to function,” Healy said.
Democratic Rep. Oren Lesmeister said funding is a big part of keeping teachers in South Dakota but added there’s more to the situation than money.
“There has been somewhat of an attack on public education in this state,” Lesmeister said. “You see the different laws, the different pokes and jabs that they take at public education all the time in this state. There are some other things going on in here that make teachers feel unwelcome.”
Appropriations process heating up
In the Republican news conference, Rep. Mike Derby gave an update on the appropriations process where lawmakers focus on setting the state’s upcoming budget.
The Rapid City lawmaker, who also served in the state legislature 1997 to 2002, is the House chair for the committee. He said the job is harder than it has been in the past because of the higher volumes of revenue in the state.
“We only got 10% of the job done and we’re going to be busy,” Derby said. “We’re taking our time and we want to get direction from the caucus.”
Derby said bills will start to be heard in appropriations on Monday and Tuesday but action won’t be taken until later in the week after more discussions happen. He said projected state revenues will be recommended to lawmakers next week as well.
Derby said the various tax cut proposals will be vetted in the upcoming days. He also shared national economic forecasts show the U.S. savings rate is the lowest point in 40 years.
“We’re taking a hard look at everything,” Derby said. “We want to make sure that moving forward everything we do is sustainable. Next week is a big week for us.”