Roberts: Two S.D. agencies can work as one

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The head of two state government departments that are set to merge next year expects a smooth transition that he said should benefit South Dakota taxpayers.

Hunter Roberts, during a teleconference Thursday with the state Board of Minerals and Environment, explained the governor’s plan to form a Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Roberts is secretary of both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He had worked with both as an aide to previous Governor Dennis Daugaard.

Governor Kristi Noem shifted agricultural-finance services to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development after she took office in January 2019. She appointed Roberts to succeed Steve Pirner as DENR secretary in August 2019.

The retirement of Kim Vanneman as agriculture secretary led to Noem naming Roberts as her replacement effective September 8 as part of the merger announcement.

The two departments are both based in the Foss Building near the state Capitol.

The Legislature will need to decide in the first five days of the 2021 session whether to block the reorganization. Roberts said the proposed budgets will be presented as one combined. There might need to be other changes in state laws, such as boards where the two departments have non-voting representatives.

Roberts said the departments had overlapping areas. For example, DENR has responsibility for watershed protection, while Agriculture’s division of natural resources and forestry offered grants.

“We are finding some very nice fits,” Roberts said. “Overall it’s going well.”

He said there would be some savings from reducing administrative positions, but there won’t be layoffs. and some people will be added.

Board member John Scheetz of Spearfish asked whether enforcement would change. Roberts said Agriculture does some enforcement and the two agencies both send people to investigate spills.

“I don’t think it really changes much. We will do enforcement. We will continue to do enforcement,” Roberts said.

He noted the board would still get contested permit cases. He added that the minerals and mining office that’s long been part of DENR had been in Agriculture decades ago.

The board, acting on the recommendation of the mining office, in August substantially increased the environmental-protection financial assurances on the Wharf gold mine near Lead and Deadwood.

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