SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Determined to defy the coronavirus, the South Dakota Legislature will convene for its 96th session on Tuesday in Pierre, where lawmakers will settle a state budget flush with one-time money from federal coronavirus funds, as well as figure what to make of voter-initiated measures to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana. But the biggest challenge for lawmakers may be in carrying out their duties while trying to avoid virus infections.
Chamber floors will feature plexiglass dividers, mask-wearing rules and rapid testing for lawmakers with COVID-19 symptoms are in the works, and committee meetings are expected to use remote participation. But all 105 lawmakers, in addition to a cast of staff, lobbyists and visitors, are expected in the Capitol at some point.
Republicans, with supermajorities in both the House and Senate, were set on holding an as-close-to-normal session as possible amid the pandemic, though many lawmakers acknowledged the day-to-day business of formulating state laws would undoubtedly be changed by the pandemic. The legislature is trying to avoid crowded committee-meeting rooms, close-up conversations with lobbyists and members of the public, and ultimately, a virus outbreak that cripples the session.
That may be difficult. A handful of infections surfaced among lawmakers after they gathered for Gov. Kristi Noem's budget address last month and the Statehouse is already notorious for breeding what's known as the “Capitol crud,” the hacking cough that seems to spread among lawmakers and lobbyists every year.
“We’re just a regular petri dish of diseases in a good year,” said Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a Republican from Watertown who is the incoming Senate pro tem, responsible for overseeing the conduct of the Senate.
After Noem delivers her State of the State address Tuesday, one of the first orders of business for lawmakers will be to pass rules for the session. In the Senate, legislative leaders are proposing masks be required. In the House, the proposal is that masks are “encouraged, but not required.” And rules may allow lawmakers to vote and attend remotely, but only under certain circumstances, such as a COVID-19 infection, exposure, or underlying health conditions.
Once the rules and precautions are settled, here are some of the most pressing issues lawmakers will tackle during the two-month session:
Thanks to Noem's administration using federal aid to offset state expenses tied to the pandemic and a $19 million budget surplus, legislators get to decide what to do with over $200 million in a one-time surplus.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, a Union Center Republican, said the funds were likely “unprecedented in the history of South Dakota."
Noem would like to send the bulk of that to expanding broadband internet access in the state, with a $100 million proposal. She would also like to see the Legislature match a $50 million donation from First Premier Bank and T. Denny Sanford to create a needs-based scholarship endowment. But lawmakers said they are eyeing projects across the state, from improving road infrastructure to expanding slaughterhouses.
“Everybody’s going to be there wanting a piece of the pie,” Cammack said. “That’s not a bad thing, that’s just how it goes.”
With the coronavirus still spreading, lawmakers will be keeping an eye on how vaccinations are proceeding and how the virus disrupts life and business. Republican lawmakers are formulating a bill to shield businesses from liability if an employee or customer believes they became infected at a business, as long as the business was not aware of the coronavirus infection.
Meanwhile, the state will likely have millions of dollars left from the $1.25 billion it received from the federal government last year to address the pandemic. The state has spent about $670 million of that so far, and a significant amount will also go out the door by the end of the month to grants for small businesses. But the Legislature will still get a say in spending the rest. Lawmakers have floated ideas including another round of grants for businesses and helping with funeral expenses for those who have died from COVID-19.
Voters passed a pair of measures in November that gave the conservative-dominated legislature an agenda item that would otherwise be of little interest in the Capitol: Pot.
Lawmakers must set regulations for a medical marijuana program. Recognizing that the proposal to legalize medical marijuana passed easily in November, Republican lawmakers have said they will not subvert the will of the people, though they want to make sure the program is only available for medical purposes.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging a voter-passed constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana will proceed through the courts during the session. Incoming House Majority Leader Kent Peterson, a Salem Republican, said this could complicate how lawmakers tackle the issue.
The closely watched recreational pot case is likely to eventually make its way to the state Supreme Court, though that would be unlikely until after the session, Cammack said.
MORE WOMEN, FEWER DEMOCRATS
The incoming class of lawmakers has the largest number of women to serve in the Legislature, with 30 women taking seats in the Capitol.
“Women bring a little bit of a different perspective to every issue," said Marli Wiese, a Madison Republican who will join legislative leadership as a whip. “I’m a mom and a grandmom first and foremost.”
Peterson, the House majority leader, credited Noem, the state's first woman to serve as governor, for helping create a groundswell of women running for state office. The number of women will grow by four from the last legislature.
Meanwhile, Democrats saw their numbers shrink to the lowest in over 60 years, holding just 11 seats between both chambers. But House Minority Leader Jamie Smith said they will play an important role in the Legislature, speaking up for people who are “under-represented” in the state. They will also push for further pay raises for teachers, state employees, and health care providers at government-funded programs.
He also hoped the session would be marked with a return to respectful debate after tensions across the state have sometimes skyrocketed amid the pandemic and election.
“I don’t know if I’m old-fashioned to believe that can be true," he said.