Feds’ oft-changing guidance on COVID-19 aid makes a special session difficult: S.D. official

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The governor’s budget director said Tuesday too much remains too fluid regarding federal COVID-19 aid for the South Dakota Legislature to safely schedule a special session.

Finance and Management Commissioner Liza Clark told the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors that no one knows for sure what could happen in Washington, D.C., in the coming months.

Among the uncertainties she listed:

Congress could give state governments nine more months — until September 30, 2021 — to spend aid they already received, in South Dakota’s case $1.25 billion. The deadline currently is December 30, 2020;

The Trump administration could further adjust rules on how states can use the money, as has repeatedly happened; and

Congress continues trying to agree on another round of federal aid, with Senate Republicans talking about $1 trillion and House Democrats seeking more than $3 trillion.

“It’s a constant moving target, constant change,” Clark said.

The governor was sent an August 6 letter bearing the names of 46 House members who want a special session called, led by House Speaker Steven Haugaard, R-Sioux Falls.

Clark acknowledged Tuesday she had thought the new round of congressional funding likely would have come in August but now it could be some time in September at the earliest.

“It depends on who you ask, I guess, or the day,” Clark said.

The 105-member Legislature currently isn’t scheduled to return en masse until the governor’s budget-recommendations speech in early December. The 2021 session opens January 12 and ends March 29.

A council member wondered Tuesday about state legislators convening in special session. Clark said she and state Revenue Secretary Jim Terwilliger had talked Tuesday morning.

“The Legislature is really, really split, and they’re really split if the timeline changes,” she said, referring to the deadline for when state governments must have the money spent or have to return it. “There are a lot (of legislators) coming directly to us.”

Clark said there’s also talk that the Legislature’s appropriations committee could assert emergency approval power. That chapter of state law is titled ‘Interim Transfers and Appropriations.’

“Honestly it depends on the day, and it depends on the legislator you ask,” she said.

The South Dakota Constitution gives the governor the power to call one or both chambers of the Legislature into special session. Legislators can also call themselves into special session with two-thirds of each chamber: 24 of 35 senators and 47 of 70 representatives.

Clark raised another hypothetical: What if the Legislature had met in special session, told Governor Kristi Noem how the COVID-19 money should be spent, and President Trump’s administration later changed the guidance or the FAQs (frequently asked questions)?

Clark said federal agencies use guidance and FAQs in many instances to set boundaries for states to act, rather than rule-making as state government does in South Dakota.

Curt Everson of Pierre, who serves on the council as president for the South Dakota Bankers Association, once held the post Clark now has. He said Tuesday the latest word through his organization was Congress would take action in mid- to late-September — “at the earliest.”

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