SIOUX FALLS (AP) – As South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem marks the beginning of the state's legislative session Tuesday, she finds herself in a balancing act, caught between business groups wanting to ratchet up the state's economic growth and social conservatives pushing some of the country's most aggressive legislation aimed at transgender people.
The Republican governor's hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic has mostly kept both sides happy, winning her nationwide attention and in-state popularity.
She has consistently trumpeted the state's economic performance – calling it the nation’s “strongest economy" – as she has tried to attract businesses to the state while also courting conservative voters with efforts to outlaw abortion, institute prayer in schools and regulate what can be taught in public schools.
But as Noem delivers the final State of the State address of her first term Tuesday, she will be navigating a rift in the GOP between business groups that have long held sway in the party and social conservatives demanding renewed attention from up-and-coming politicians like her.
At times, she has been unable to please both.
Last year's legislative session ended with social conservatives souring on Noem as she effectively killed a bill to ban transgender women and girls from playing in school sports leagues that match their gender identity.
Noem issued a “style and form veto,” which limited it to high school and elementary sports, after business groups aggressively lobbied against the bill, warning that it could imperil the state’s economic growth if the NCAA pulled tournaments from the state or Amazon canceled its plans to build a distribution center.
But the move angered many leading social conservatives, such as Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, who accused her of capitulating to corporate America instead of demonstrating a commitment to conservative principles.
Defending the move to Fox News' Tucker Carlson last year, Noem explained: “We're a small state, Tucker, we've had to fight hard to get any tournaments to come to South Dakota.”
After the bill failed, Noem quickly issued executive orders, much to the same effect. And this year, she has attempted to take the lead on the issue with a bill previewed in December that would keep trans athletes from female sports leagues.
“Every young woman deserves an equal playing field where she can achieve success, but common sense tells us that males have an unfair physical advantage over females in athletic competition,” she said in a statement.
The bill won Noem a nod from Schilling, but state lawmakers want to push the governor to take a harder stance on the issue. They have previewed their own legislation on transgender athletes with a sharper enforcement mechanism, as well as proposals that would ban transgender students from using bathrooms that match their gender identity and minors' access to gender-affirming hormone therapies and operations.
“Big picture, we want to protect children," said Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, a perennial champion of the bills, arguing that the Legislature should step into school athletics, school bathroom access and health care to address what he sees as a growing number of transgender children.
Advocates for transgender people plan to protest and lobby against the legislation, saying it bullies a group of people who are already marginalized.
“These (bills) are attacking transgender people in the form of legislation,” said Rep. Jamie Smith, the Democratic House leader. “They have no business taking the time of our Legislature.”
However, in the Republican-dominated Capitol, the most effective argument against those types of bills has often been one of dollars and cents.
“When you are just discriminating against a given class of people, that tends to result in canceled conventions, sanctions by event groups like the NCAA,” said David Owen, president of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
He also argued that the state’s high school athletics association already had an effective policy of evaluating requests from transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis. In the one instance that the association granted a transgender student's request, the competition was not disrupted, according to the athletics association.
When North Carolina passed a so-called bathroom bill in 2016, the state was projected to lose more than $3.76 billion over a dozen years, according to an Associated Press analysis. And while businesses and the NCAA declined to exact the same economic punishment last year when nine other states restricted transgender students, South Dakota business leaders are still wary.
Thomas Lee, the director of the Sioux Falls Sports Authority, which organizes the state's largest college tournaments, warned that the “NCAA, instead of pulling events, may not award events in the future.”
Republican legislative leaders, who are key allies of Noem's, expressed caution over the proposals from the Legislature. The Senate's Republican leader, Sen. Gary Cammack, said his caucus would be addressing women's sports, but he did not want South Dakota to “be on the far extreme” of the issue.
Ian Fury, the governor's spokesman, also indicated she would stay focused on the sports issue, saying, “Political ideology should not be a barrier to our daughters’ and granddaughters’ opportunity to grow and achieve as student-athletes.”