SIOUX FALLS (AP) – South Dakota's rapid-fire legislative session kicks off Tuesday with lawmakers prepared to debate legalizing marijuana, how to spend nearly $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief and what to do with a spate of bills touching on some of the nation's most incendiary social issues.
The heightened tensions of an election year, a bitter spat between House and Senate Republicans and one of the shortest legislative sessions in the country ensure that politics in Pierre will be lively this year. And as if those issues won’t keep lawmakers busy enough during the nine-week session, a House impeachment investigation is gaining steam as it probes Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's conduct in a fatal car crash in 2020.
Here are four things to know about the session:
A HOUSE DIVIDED
Republicans have seen their numbers swell to historic numbers in the Statehouse, but that does not mean all is well for the party. A growing divide between mainstream Republicans and a right wing of the party is embodied in two of the most powerful GOP lawmakers: Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Spencer Gosch.
Schoenbeck, who represents the party's old guard, describes some House members as “crazies” for their right-wing stances and undermined Gosch's attempt to keep secret the names of House lawmakers who petitioned for a special session last year. Gosch accused the senator of employing “DC political tactics” during redistricting.
Their beef didn't end with redistricting – a process that left Republicans openly fuming in the halls of the Capitol in November. The two lawmakers have traded jabs during committee meetings leading up to the session and will be trying to outmaneuver each other as they guide bills through their respective chambers this year.
The divide during redistricting left Democrats in a rare position of power in Pierre. With House Republicans split on whether to approve a political map that originated in the Senate, Democrats were able to gain some key concessions and cast deciding votes.
House Democratic leader Rep. Jamie Smith said he'll be looking for opportunities to do that again.
“It’s not a secret at all that the Republican caucus is a divided caucus,” Smith said. “I believe that our eight votes will be very important at certain times during our legislative session. It would be a mistake for people to overlook the Democratic Party in Pierre.”
However, Republican caucus leaders, particularly Sen. Gary Cammack and Rep. Kent Peterson, will be looking to smooth tensions to ensure they keep control.
“Redistricting was really hard,” Peterson said, acknowledging a tense three days of negotiations. But he called the new year “a reset point.”
Republican leaders have scheduled regular sitdowns to discuss legislation, Cammack said, “so we’re talking to each other and not talking at each other.”
Lawmakers spent the last year figuring out what to do with two voter-approved measures to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana. While a medical program has been implemented, recreational pot remains illegal after the state Supreme Court ruled that the ballot measure violated the state constitution. And some lawmakers want to change the status of both.
A legislative committee has crafted a pair of bills to legalize and then tax recreational marijuana for adults. Also, dozens of bills propose more regulations on the current medical marijuana law, including putting a three-plant maximum on medical users who grow cannabis at home or disallowing home growing altogether.
But lawmakers will be taking up an issue that's politically fraught for Gov. Kristi Noem. She opposed marijuana legalization, tried to slow implementation of the medical marijuana law last year and launched a lawsuit that killed recreational pot legalization. She has struck a softer tone recently on legalization.
Sen. Michael Rohl, who has pushed for legalization, said Noem told lawmakers on a recent call that “we were driving the bus” on marijuana legislation.
It's not clear whether Noem would veto recreational marijuana if a bill legalizing it reaches her desk. Rohl said he wants to “put it on her desk and find out.”
Many lawmakers see pot legalization as inevitable – either through their action, federal legislation or another ballot measure in November.
“Some of the folks believe that we’re either going to do it or have it done to us,” Cammack said.
FEDERAL CORONAVIRUS RELIEF
The Legislature is flush with funds, largely thanks to federal pandemic relief. And Noem has proposed over $1 billion in projects that address child care, housing needs and water access.
“This appropriations committee is going to be dealing with more spending than any appropriations committee in the history of South Dakota,” said Schoenbeck.
The committee, which irons out the budget, was already at work last week, trying to get a head start on the session. But the budget is perennially the final item settled in Pierre.
“Any time you're talking about money, it’s contentious," Peterson said.
Lawmakers will come up with their own proposals on spending the federal money but will have to stay within federal guidelines. Republicans also want to make sure the federal money is spent on one-time projects that will last long into the future.
The state has also seen soaring tax revenues, and the governor has proposed a historic raise of 6% for state employees, teachers and government-funded medical providers – a massive leap for an allocation that has perennially been a budget squeeze in the Capitol. Democrats say it should be even more.
The Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Troy Heinert, said the raise proposal was “good, but that doesn’t even meet the rate of inflation.”
He pointed out that South Dakota has one of the lowest rates of average teacher pay in the nation.
It's an election year, and lawmakers will be hitting on plenty of hot-button social issues that fire up conservative voters.
Noem, who is running for reelection while also positioning herself for a possible 2024 White House bid, has already previewed legislation addressing abortion, transgender athletes, the country's history on race and prayer in schools.
Some conservative lawmakers don't want to stop with Noem's proposals. They have brought their own ban on transgender women and girl athletes with a sharper enforcement mechanism, as well as proposals that would ban transgender students from using bathrooms that match their gender identity and their access to gender-confirming hormone therapies and operations.
“I think this session is going to be quite brutal,” said Susan Williams, who leads an organization that advocates for transgender youth called The Transformation Project.
In the past, Noem has sounded notes of caution on legislation that singles out transgender youth, but she faced political fallout from social conservatives when she partially vetoed a bill that addressed transgender athletes last year. With her support of a ban on transgender women and girl athletes from leagues matching their gender identity, the legislation appears bound to succeed. But some top Republicans said that doesn't mean every bill affecting transgender people will get their nod.
“Some instances we might find a way to craft legislation that makes sense,” Schoenbeck said. “For other ones, we’ve got to get them to go away.”