PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A bipartisan group from the South Dakota House of Representatives wants Governor Kristi Noem to call the Legislature into special session about spending federal COVID-19 funding. But a top aide to the governor is minimizing the request, saying it came from “a few.”

Reportedly there were 49 signatures on the letter from state representatives. The House has 70 members. There wasn’t a similar request from the 35 senators.

“The majority don’t want a special session. The governor spent more than an hour discussing options with the entire Legislature – the letter didn’t offer anything new to respond to that wasn’t discussed on the call,” Maggie Seidel, a senior aide to the governor, told KELOLAND News.

“The approach, as agreed to by the majority of the Legislature, is to wait to see what Congress does so we don’t pigeonhole ourselves. Once we have that clarity from Congress, we’ll decide if a special session is necessary,” Seidel said.  

The South Dakota Constitution, regarding the governor’s powers, states, “The Governor may convene the Legislature or either house thereof alone in special session by a proclamation stating the purposes of the session, and only business encompassed by such purposes shall be transacted.”

The constitution also grants the Legislature the authority to call itself into special session: “In addition to the provisions of Article IV, § 3, the Legislature may be convened in special session by the presiding officers of both houses upon the written request of two-thirds of the members of each house. The petition of request shall state the purposes of the session, and only business encompassed by those purposes may be transacted.”

After the Legislature ended the 2020 regular session in March, South Dakota’s state government received $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding, plus additional millions of dollars that Congress earmarked for specific purposes.

Dozens of Republicans and Democrats signed the letter to the governor, according to information KELOLAND News has learned, because they want a voice in how some of the COVID-19 money is allocated.

State government faces a December 31 deadline for committing the federal aid. The Legislature, whose members adopt an annual budget for state government, isn’t scheduled to return until the 2021 regular session starts January 12.

Some House members told KELOLAND News they also would like field hearings in the near future to better understand where relief money is needed.

The non-partisan professional staff that works for both chambers, known as the Legislative Research Council, wants direction beforehand from the Legislature’s Executive Board. The House-Senate board’s next meeting is August 31. There isn’t an agenda posted yet.

Senator Brock Greenfield, a Clark Republican, is the top member of his chamber as president pro tem and, because of that position, he is co-chairman of the Executive Board. Telephone calls to his home number weren’t answered Friday morning.

House Speaker Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, because of his position currently is the board’s other co-chairman. He hasn’t responded to an email message sent to his legislative address Thursday afternoon.

Neither has Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican who is co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations, a panel of 18 House and Senate members who assemble state government’s budget for the executive branch.

In the governor’s conference call, she wanted to bring lawmakers up to speed and to learn what they had been hearing in their districts, according to several people who said they were on the call. The conference calls have been one of the ways Noem has used to stay in closer touch.

State government finished the 2020 state fiscal year June 30 with a small surplus despite the pandemic, partially because of spending reductions, and saw July sales-tax revenue come in stronger than legislators forecast last winter.

House Democratic leader Jamie Smith of Sioux Falls told KELOLAND News on Friday he plans to meet with Sioux Falls school district officials regarding their budget needs related to COVID-19.

Smith said the Republican governor has been cooperative with Democratic legislators and has made available top members of her administration, including chief of staff Tony Venhuizen and finance commissioner Liza Clark.

Most of the 11 House Democrats signed the letter regarding the special session, according to Smith.

The governor’s office so far has provided updates to several legislative committees on how the $1.25 billion of federal COVID-19 has been spent, but more than half of it might need to be returned if Congress and the Trump administration hold to the December 31 deadline.

“We need to get that to the people that need it,” Smith said. “There are needs that need to be funded.” He said it goes beyond partisan politics. “This is a moment of crisis in our country.”