Amid the pandemic, South Dakota legislators are taking separate paths within the Capitol

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The first 24 hours of the 2021 legislative session have seen South Dakota lawmakers split at least five ways in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ten of the Democrats are unified in wearing masks in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The 11th, Representative Oren Lesmeister of Parade, is still at home because of COVID-19.

The 32 Senate Republicans for the most part are wearing masks. But some aren’t. The Senate president, Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden, isn’t either.

Many of the 62 House Republicans aren’t wearing masks, including none on the House Legislative Procedure Committee, such as the House speaker, Spencer Gosch of Glenham, and the speaker pro tem, Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids.

But a lot of House Republicans are.

Whether non-legislators need masks depends on where a person is in the Capitol and when.

The Legislature controls the third and fourth floors. The year-round staff of the Legislative Research Council, whose main office is on the third floor, wear masks. LRC session staff in the two legislative chambers wear masks, as do session clerical workers in the Capitol basement.

The Senate has rule proposals pending for its chamber that say senators are “expected” to wear masks on the Senate floor and in Senate committees. That is, unless they keep at least six feet of distance from a legislative staffer.

There are signs on the west side of the Capitol on the third and fourth floors that tell the public they must wear masks when they are around the Senate. Masks also are required of all non-senators at Senate committee meetings.

The House is taking a different line, with signs saying masks are “encouraged.”

The state Unified Judicial System is headquartered on the first and second floors of the east wing of the Capitol, including individual offices for the UJS administrator, the five justices of the South Dakota Supreme Court and their clerk and central staff. UJS employees have been required to wear masks in the building when outside their offices.

On the first and second floors of the west wing, there’s Governor Kristi Noem, her direct staff and her Bureau of Human Resources; her Bureau of Finance and Management is in the northside annex. None of them have to wear masks. They generally follow the example of their leader: Noem rarely wears a mask and routinely poses for photos with no one wearing them.

The seven House members and seven senators who serve on their respective Legislative Procedure committees met separately Wednesday morning to go through proposed new rules and rules changes. (See related story.)

Democrat Erin Healy of Sioux Falls was the only House committee member to wear a mask. Republican Gary Cammack of Union Center was the only Senate committee member who didn’t wear a mask.

Then the two groups came together as a joint committee of 14, sitting elbow to elbow, seven with masks and seven without, to work on joint rules.

They agreed 13-1 on a new proposal that a chamber’s presiding officer may allow a member to participate remotely if the member has COVID-19 or is in quarantine because of it.

This was after a 11-3 vote to reject an amendment from Democratic Senator Reynold Nesiba of Sioux Falls; he wanted to add a third situation for participating remotely: A member with a person in the household who a physician says is immuno-compromised or in danger because of older age.

Republican Senator Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown opposed the amendment because it would raise more difficulty for the public to communicate with the remote member.

Gosch spoke against it too. “Our bosses don’t exist in this Capitol… Our bosses are twenty- to twenty-five-thousand people at home,” Gosch said. “We’re not making money here. We’re here for the people and doing the people’s work.”

After his amendment lost, Nesiba cast the lone nay against the original plan. He said several times Wednesday he would prefer South Dakota follow Alaska’s model where rules such as a mask requirement were set for the entire building. “That would be my preference for this building and it’s clear that’s a minority voice in this building,” Nesiba said.

Senate Democrat leader Troy Heinert of Mission offered to the joint committee a proposal that would allow the Senate rules to prevail during joint sessions in the House chamber.

Those events include a governor’s December budget speech and the three speeches during the first week each session by the governor, chief justice and a tribal leader, as well as the joint memorial service for former legislators who died in the past year.

Heinert said senators follow the Senate rules, go to the House and then return to the Senate: “That’s kind of like urinating in the deep end of the pool and expecting it will stay there.”

Schoenbeck said he understood the motivation but the House rules should prevail in the House chamber. Schoenbeck however also noted “a lot less” senators were going to joint sessions during the pandemic and watched speeches remotely instead.

Gosch said Heinert’s plan hadn’t been proposed to House Republicans. “I can’t comfortably say how it even would be received,” Gosch said, warning it could fail in the House. “I’m a little concerned about that.”

The vote was 12-2 against.

All of the rule changes recommended Wednesday still need approval from the full House and Senate in the coming days.

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