PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota is “the best place to live in America,” Governor Kristi Noem told lawmakers Tuesday during her State of the State address opening the 2021 session of the Legislature.

The Republican governor’s remark brought proud applause from legislators of all stripes jammed into the House chamber, where she had served for four years more than a decade ago, before her 2010 election to the state’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

She dotted the 42-minute speech, her third State of the State since taking office as governor in 2019, with references to people in the gallery who came to the Capitol to be honored.

Among them were the wife, Wendy, and six children of Hughes County chief deputy Lee Weber, who drowned in the Missouri River below Oahe Dam on July 3 after diving from the boat to save a son who had fallen in without a life jacket.

“He died a hero that day,” Noem said.

Noem returned several times to points made during her December budget speech. One was her call for $100 million of state funds to provide matching grants to broadband providers to improve services to 135,000 rural and small-town residents — roughly one of every seven South Dakotans.

She shared stories of two people who live and work in South Dakota because they have high-speed broadband connections. “People with big-city salaries are moving to small-town South Dakota,” she said.

Noem compared the restrictions taken by many state governments to COVID-19 and the freedom-based response that she’s led. Many senators and some representatives throughout the chamber wore masks, but neither the governor nor Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden did.

Throughout the speech her office sent tweets timed to what she was saying. One stated, “For those who have spent the last nine months shut down or locked up in other states, South Dakota is open. We have stayed open the entire time. And that’s how we will operate for as long as I am Governor.”

South Dakota has lost 1,585 lives to COVID-19 and has seen an economic boom, in part from billions of federal aid to coronavirus-affected businesses. Her administration has so far been unable to attract enough applications from small businesses to use up the $1.25 billion that Congress allotted South Dakota.

Her budget office meanwhile reported Tuesday that sales tax revenues for July through December were 5.4% ahead of the estimate lawmakers made last winter and 2.3% ahead for December.

“In South Dakota, we do not make policy out of fear,” Noem said. She called U.S. Department of Agriculture projections on South Dakota’s major crops “very good news” and said South Dakota saw 23 new agriculture-development projects creating 320 new jobs in 2020.

Noem added one new item to her budget list: $50 million as state government’s part of a new $200 million need-based scholarship fund for higher-education students. T. Denny Sanford and First PREMIER Bank have given $50 million and will give another $50 million. The remaining $50 million would be raised from other sources.

The scholarships would require recipients to work three years in South Dakota. Otherwise, they would become loans. Noem called the program “transformational.” South Dakota reportedly is the only state in the nation without a need-based scholarship.

Noem, whose oldest daughter is a youth coordinator for South Dakota Right to Life, told lawmakers she would submit legislation to prohibit abortion of “pre-born” children diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She honored two families with Down Syndrome children in the gallery.

According to a state Department of Health report, South Dakota children born with Down Syndrome numbered 17 in 2014, 8 in 2015, 15 in 2016, 20 in 2017 and 13 in 2018.

The governor described the smiles and personalities of Down Syndrome children as “gifts from God” and said Iceland and Denmark try to eliminate them through abortion, which she called appalling.

“We are better than that,” Noem said.