PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota lawmakers increased state government’s budget for the current year to reflect $1.396 billion of additional federal aid for the global COVID-19 pandemic Monday.
The Legislature met in a special session that Governor Kristi Noem had called last month, after more than 40 House members from both political parties suggested it in an August letter from Speaker Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican.
Legislators also adopted a resolution Monday recommending how they want the governor to spend $597 million remaining in the federal coronavirus fund. Noem’s administration had received $1.25 billion as South Dakota’s share from Congress.
The Appropriations Committee’s 18 members put together the $597 million plan last week, after five House-Senate policy committees held meetings to take the public’s suggestions for the money. The governor had previously announced plans to spend most of that remainder: $400 million on business grants and $100 million for community healthcare providers. The appropriators shaped the final $97 million.
The special session came as South Dakota had ranked first- or second-worst in the nation in recent weeks for coronavirus cases per 100,000 population. Many legislators at the Capitol on Monday didn’t wear facial coverings and sat side by side at their desks as Noem delivered a 15-minute speech to a joint assembly in the House chamber.
She said a “prominent” national reporter had recently sent her a note praising her no-restrictions approach for South Dakota while many states have had various forms of lockdowns. She said many people now want to move to South Dakota.
“Throughout this pandemic, we have had many conference calls together,” Noem told lawmakers. “Today, I look forward to hearing from you in a formal setting while you provide your invaluable input. I know many of you have been hard at work constructing recommendations for what we should do with the federal dollars that we have left.”
She continued, “It’s my hope today that we can set aside personal agendas and reject ideological fights. The people of South Dakota are counting on us to work together, to take this finite amount of money and help as many of our citizens as we can within Treasury’s parameters.”
While most of the 70 House members sought a special session, many of the Senate’s Republicans wanted to either leave the spending authority solely up to the Republican governor or have the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee advise her.
At one point in her speech, Noem asked lawmakers to silently observe the loss of Representative Bob Glanzer, a Huron Republican. He died from COVID-19 in March.
More than three dozen House members and about a dozen of the 35 senators were at the Capitol on Monday, despite the advertised availability of participating virtually. The House virtual system broke down about two hours into the process, forcing clerical staff to temporarily take votes by roll call.
Democrats required masks for people to enter their House and Senate offices. Republicans didn’t. Most Republicans didn’t wear masks, and those who did were mostly from were from the I-29 corridor. The governor, as well as Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden and members of their staff who were seen in the chambers, didn’t wear masks.
The Senate adopted the resolution at about 1:25 p.m. CT by a 25-7 margin. “It’s a well-crafted piece of legislation, or resolution I should say,” Senate Republican leader Kris Langer of Dell Rapids said. Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, disagreed because he wanted the money spent in some additional ways: “We’re the Legislature. Shouldn’t we be able to pass our own appropriation?”
Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert of Mission had tried to change the resolution to include money specifically for rodeo stock producers and meat cutters and to provide $500 apiece for students at federal Bureau of Indian Education schools. All three failed but Senator Gary Cammack, a Union Center Republican, pledged he would bring a meat-cutter bill to the 2021 session in January.
There was nearly unanimous agreement by senators on the appropriations bill that passed 31-2.
House members were working on the resolution by 2 p.m.
Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican who’s appropriations co-chair, said all of the money might not be sent out by the December 30 deadline that Congress set for spending coronavirus relief funds. “I think there’s going to be some leftover dollars. We’re going to come back,” Karr said.
Representative Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, argued, without success, that state government needs to specifically increase the availability of rapid coronavirus testing because there’s been “a significant rise” over the past six weeks in South Dakota’s positive rates. The state Department of Health meanwhile has now reduced its briefing schedule for news reporters to once per week on COVID results.
The seven-day average had North Dakota at 57 and South Dakota at 47 Monday as the highest states per 100,000 population, according to The Washington Post. North Dakota has now budgeted more than $1 million for advertising urging people to wear masks.
The governor’s campaign meanwhile underlined the freedom theme with a fundraising email in the afternoon about the recent Custer State Park bison roundup. “These grand animals always remind me of the beauty of freedom in America, and it seems appropriate that they call South Dakota home. South Dakotans love their freedom, and as your governor, I will continue to do everything I can to protect it,” her email said.