Budget, smoke-outs and pot: Legislature enters its last days
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers have just four more days to work out most of the details in this year’s legislative session.
As deadlines loom — and issues from the budget to medical marijuana and self-defense laws remain unsettled — many lawmakers are expecting some long nights at the Capitol in Pierre. Here are top issues to watch during the week:
South Dakota Republicans normally pride themselves on their thriftiness, but not this year. With an unprecedented amount of one-time funds — thanks largely to a windfall of federal relief money for the pandemic — Gov. Kristi Noem and lawmakers have looked to spend big. Both chambers have approved $50 million to go towards an endowment for a needs-based scholarship, but several other priorities have yet to clear the final hurdles.
“This is a year unlike any that we’ve seen in statehood with the amount of dollars available and the amount of opportunities we have in front of us,” said House Republican leader Kent Peterson.
The Senate has approved requests from Noem for $75 million to expand broadband internet access and $12 million to build an events center at the state fairgrounds. Senators have also passed their own initiative to spend $20 million to repair a railroad line from Fort Pierre to Rapid City. But those bills have not cleared the House.
Meanwhile, House lawmakers are hoping the Senate approves $20 million for a new facility at South Dakota State University that would research how to turn crops into new products.
As deadlines loom and ideas on using the money abound, tensions are sure to rise. The final days of the session will be marked with frenzied budget negotiations between the House and Senate. But with a week to go before the deadline hits, Republican leaders paused to congratulate themselves on the new programs at a Thursday news conference.
“We are doing some transformational things,” said Sen. Mike Diedrich, the assistant majority leader. “Some things that will change the face of South Dakota.”
A smoke-out at the Capitol is a legislative maneuver whereby one-third of lawmakers in a chamber can resurrect a bill that has been dismissed by a committee. It’s rarely used, but within the span of two days, the Senate executed three smoke-outs — revealing tensions between top Republicans in the chamber.
Senate committees rejected three controversial House bills last week: a ban on transgender women and girls from playing in female sports leagues, the governor’s push to bar conservation officers from entering private land without permission and a “Stand Your Ground” bill that allows force to be used in self-defense. But each was revived by a smoke-out.
The development left several lawmakers grumbling that the committees that vetted the bills were not being respected. However, each of the revived bills also requires a majority vote to place it on the debate calendar. That means lawmakers trying to resurrect their proposals will be trying to find lawmakers willing to change their minds.
Pot advocates entered the legislative session cautious about how the conservative Legislature would handle a pair of ballot measures passed in November to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana.
“We feel like we gave them a prime rib dinner and they turned around and gave us some pocket lint,” is how Melissa Mentele, an advocate for medical marijuana, described delays in rolling out a medical marijuana program.
Noem unveiled a plan last month to delay the legalization of medical marijuana and set up a committee to research the issue before creating a program. However, advocates and lobbyists have been active at the Capitol — taking lawmakers and the governor to task for not implementing the will of the voters.
They have been able to push some compromises like whittling the delay down from a year to six months. For advocates like Mentele, the most crucial compromise has been a provision to allow users to avoid criminal charges starting on July 1.
The Senate passed that provision, sendng it to the House to decide how to handle it. If it clears the House, it would head to Noem’s desk, where she would face the dilemma of signing a bill heavily amended from what she first proposed or vetoing it and allowing the full law to go into place on July 1.
“We’re just trying to take responsible action, make sure we set up the program correctly, that we’re doing it the right way so that we don’t run into unintended consequences,” Noem said.