PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Look for members of the Legislature to work with agriculture interests and the governor’s office during the coming months on ways to possibly deter China from buying agricultural property in South Dakota.
Nearly every major ag group opposed Governor Kristi Noem’s SB-185. It sought to establish a special committee, appointed by the governor, to review future purchases by foreign interests and let the governor block them. The Senate rejected it last week on a 23-11 vote.
But Senate Republican leader Casey Crabtree, who helped stop it, told statehouse reporters Thursday that the issue likely will be brought back for the 2024 legislative session. He said there’s a commitment to work on it during the interim.
Brenda Forman, executive director for the South Dakota Association of Cooperatives, serves as the point person for the agricultural lobby on the foreign-ownership issue.
“Yes, it is true,” Forman told KELOLAND News. “As noted during testimony, agriculture does plan on working on the issue in the interim.”
Noem has specifically mentioned Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City as a potential target of China’s intelligence gathering. One of the witnesses who testified in support of Noem’s bill was Scott Landguth from the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority, a governor-appointed panel.
Crabtree said the Senate’s 31 Republicans agreed “wholeheartedly” with Noem’s anti-China vision but disagreed on the mechanism. He said that Noem’s plan would have given the review committee and the governor a lot of responsibility.
“Right now we’ve got a governor who’s very friendly to ag. We have no idea what the next one’s going to look like, or down the road,” Crabtree said. “At that point we just couldn’t get with that mechanism. Ag groups agreed with that spot as well.”
Crabtree said Senate Republicans are “fully committed” to working with the governor’s office and ag groups to come up with “the best bill in the country.”
The Legislature passed a law in 1979 prohibiting most instances of foreign ownership of more than 160 acres of agricultural land. According to a lawyer from the governor’s office, it’s never been enforced.
“I think there’s a renewed interest in enforcing this law. It has been on the books for decades,” Republican House leader Will Mortenson said. He’s a self-described cowhand and an attorney whose work includes assisting clients with rural land transfers.
The Senate gave final legislative approval Friday to HB-1189 that Mortenson and Republican Sen. Ryan Maher sponsored. It would change a different chapter of law and require an entity to tell the South Dakota secretary of state whether any land was owned and whether the entity “has any foreign beneficial owners.” Their bill now goes to the governor for her decision whether to sign it into law.
Mortenson told reporters he doesn’t have a lot of foreign clients — “We don’t encounter that all that often” — but he does have clients that sell land to entities. “I might know who the manager of the LLC (limited liability corporation) is, I might know who the president of the corporation is, or I might know who the general partner of a limited partnership is, but I don’t know who owned that entity,” he said.
HB-1189 would give the government the power to start to find that out, according to Mortenson. “The biggest loophole we’ve got in the current foreign-ownership ag land ban is this entity loophole,” he said. “We need to keep South Dakota ag land for South Dakotans. It’s a resource that I think is special to our people.”
Mortenson looked down at the state seal on the Capitol conference room’s carpet. “What is it? It’s a farmer working the land. It’s our heritage, and it’s going to be our future. We’ve got to protect it.”
He said the effort would continue this summer.
“I think with the governor on this issue and a couple others we have the same goal, we’re just kind of fighting over the mechanics,” Mortenson said. “We’re committed to continuing to work with her on some of these things she’s brought up.”