Noem: Make the most of COVID-19 money

Capitol News Bureau
Governor Kristi Noem gives 2021 budget address

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — There’s something to be said for those who can see a good way out of a bad situation.

That’s the image Governor Kristi Noem set Tuesday in her budget speech.

Noem, a deeply conservative Republican, said she thought about refusing the hundreds of millions of dollars that Congress had designated as South Dakota’s share of COVID-19 relief.

“There’s another kind of revenue that’s coming into South Dakota this year. And it’s not revenue in the traditional sense — it’s a giant handout from Washington, D.C.,” she told legislators.

Noem understood how Congress works, because she had been there.

Back in 2018, Noem was already in her eighth year as the state’s only member in the U.S. House of Representatives when she filed to run for governor.

She came into the governor’s office with a perspective none of her predecessors had.

She knew, too, that it was most of the people back home who were paying the government’s way — and that would be the case, too, for the federal COVID-19 aid.

“That money isn’t appearing out of thin air,” Noem said Tuesday. “Those are taxpayer dollars too, and it’s money that is being borrowed from the future — from our children, our grandchildren, and beyond.”

That made her question whether she should take it.

“I have had people ask me from time to time, ‘Kristi, why don’t you just give the federal money back? After all, it’s taxpayers’ money.’ That was my first thought, too — to refuse the money,” she said.

“But here’s the problem. Giving that money back means that money goes to another state — to California, to New Jersey, maybe Illinois, Michigan, or Minnesota. That money is not going back into South Dakota taxpayers’ pockets.

“It would be spent somewhere other than South Dakota. The debt would still be incurred by the country, and our people would still suffer the consequences of that spending.”

It’s a dilemma that every one of the nation’s 50 governors faced, to some degree. Noem weighed what the windfall could mean for meeting some of South Dakota’s many needs. $600 million for prisons. Outdated dams. Aging water and sewer lines. Thousands of lesser-paid healthcare workers, and many state government employees, and school teachers, too.

“There’s something else about those dollars. The money that has already been spent in Washington, DC was sent to the state with strings attached. They put conditions on how we can spend it and when we can spend it,” Noem said.

So that’s how she decided to use a lot of it. She recommended $660 million for water projects Tuesday. $200 million for workforce housing. Six percent raises. The list went on and on.

And she looked at what draws people to visit South Dakota, or even to move here.

Opportunity.

The attraction of the state’s outdoors.

The nation’s highest ratio of unfilled jobs..

In the end, the COVID-19 aid turned out to offer too much good for someone even as conservative as her to turn down.

“To the fullest extent that we can, we are going to put those funds to work for our state, to address our state’s most pressing needs, to make fiscally responsible, one-time expenditures that will not grow the government, but that will save our people money in the long run,” Noem said. 

Representative Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, summed it up afterward. Said Duba: “She exceeded our expectations.”

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