With order, Noem officially notifies legislators she intends to fold two departments into one

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre map locator South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Governor Kristi Noem moved ahead Tuesday with her plan to combine the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

She filed an executive order creating the state Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The Legislature can stop the change by majority vote in the House of Representatives or the Senate.

The governor issued a news release that quoted South Dakota Farm Bureau President Scott Vanderwal expressing his group’s support for the change.

The South Dakota Farmers Union and Dakota Rural Action oppose it.

Hours earlier, Hunter Roberts, the current cabinet secretary for both departments, presented the merger plan to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The proposal has stirred up some people.

“Our emails are lighting up,” Representative Tim Goodwin, a Republican from the Rapid City area, told Roberts.

Roberts said the merger would save about $450,000 through elimination of five full-time positions, including one cabinet member, and would mean two trips rather than three each year to agriculture producers such as dairies and concentrated animal feeding operations known as CAFOs.

He said the single department will be able to be more responsive to complaints, reduce travel and save time and money.

The state Division of Wildland Fire will transfer to the Department of Public Safety. It has been in the Department of Agriculture.

Representative Richard Vasgaard, a Republican farmer from the Centerville area asked what would happen to agricultural check-off fees. Roberts said a past proposal to use a portion to offset department costs wasn’t his idea.

“That is not our plan,” Roberts said.

Representative Oren Lesmeister, a Democratic rancher from the Parade area, asked whether there was intent to expand the merged department and what the plan was for the next five or 10 years.

“I can’t promise anything,” Roberts replied. “I don’t plan on expanding the department’s mission at this point.”

Said Lesmeister, “That’s the biggest unknown to the people I talk to.”

Roberts said he wants the two staffs to learn to bond and trust each other. “It takes years to develop that. That’s my number one priority.”

Dairies and water systems are built for the long haul and that’s how the combined staff should approach their duties, he said, and when there’s resistance, the department will take enforcement measures.

Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden, a Republican from the Union Center area, took the witness seat. He served as an interim secretary of agriculture for several months after the Republican governor’s first appointee, Kim Vanneman from the Ideal area, quietly resigned last year.

“I think the whole movement has demonstrated our commitment to agriculture in the state,” Rhoden said.

Roberts said his deputy secretary is Jeanne Goodman, who’s worked in state government for four decades. A series of division directors went next to the witness table to explain their responsibilities.

Representative Charlie Hoffman, a Republican rancher from the Eureka area, asked about enforcement in instances when pesticides such as dicamba drift onto soybean breeds that are vulnerable.

“By adding these two agencies resources I see us as being more responsive,” Roberts said.

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