Ready for fast, furious session

Ryan Hermens/Rapid City Journal via AP: In this Jan. 8, 2019, photo, South Dakota state legislators listen while Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her first State of the State address at the state Capitol in Pierre. Lawmakers say things will be fast and furious when South Dakota’s Republican-dominated Legislature convenes. Working on a tight deadline, many lawmakers have put issues familiar from last year at the top of their to-do lists. That includes stretching a tight budget, legalizing industrial hemp, and preparing for potential protests of the Keystone XL pipeline.

SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Figuring out how to fund delayed pay raises, clamping down on pipeline protesters, and legalizing hemp will top South Dakota lawmakers’ agenda this year.

Lawmakers won’t have much time to act. They are scheduled to be in session just 37 days over two months, meaning Republicans who control the Legislature will have to reach deals quickly with Gov. Kristi Noem.

“It’s pretty fast and furious,” Senate Majority Leader Kris Langer, R-Dell Rapids, said. “It’s a really packed, crazy session.”

With limited time in the Capitol, many lawmakers have put issues familiar from last year at the top of their to-do lists,

Lawmakers have also spent the last year studying the state’s mental health and addiction resources and have several bills aimed at expanding treatment in rural areas, where they say there is an alarming rate of suicide. Looming over the session will be the ongoing struggles from some of the worst flooding in state history last year.

State budget

When Gov. Kristi Noem presented her proposed budget in December, she warned the Legislature that things were looking lean. She recommended the state hold off on raising salary funding for teachers, state employees and medical providers. But lawmakers said they are looking for a way to give raises.

Lawmakers said they will be watching the revenue figures closely throughout the session. They’ve already received some good news – revenue is now $5.1 million over estimates. 

It will cost more than that to fund the pay increases. The Bureau of Finance and Management estimates that each percentage-point increase in funding will cost about $16 million.

That may be tough to find in the budget. The state will receive about $20 million less starting in July when the state can no longer tax internet access because of a congressional mandate. The state’s agriculture industry is coming off a difficult year of flooding and trade uncertainty.

The state overhauled its education funding formula three years ago to boost teacher pay. The new law included a half-cent increase in sales tax and promised to increase funding every year by 3% or the inflation rate, whichever is less. For the last two years, though, the state has not met those requirements due to cash flow problems.

Democratic legislative leaders argue that the law requires the funding increases. Republicans are often quick to point out that the state’s constitution requires a balanced budget.

Noem is also requesting funding for treatment of meth addiction, a Health Sciences building at the University of South Dakota, an upgrade of the state’s emergency-response radio system, and grants to expand broadband internet access. She has proposed a $4.94 billion budget, one of the smallest state budgets in the nation. 

Hemp

The nearly year-long fight between the governor and lawmakers over industrial hemp may resolve quickly in the session.

Noem, until now a hemp opponent, has said she won’t veto  a bill legalizing industrial hemp if lawmakers can meet four “guardrails” for the law. She wants hemp to be tightly regulated and for legislators to come up with a way to pay for the hemp program. She also wants law enforcement to have the ability to search hemp fields and facilities.

Lawmakers said their plan already meets most of Noem’s criteria and they would be ready to bring it up early in the session. The bill would allow farmers to grow hemp as long as they plant more than 5 acres and keep the THC content of the plant below 0.3%. THC is the compound that produces a high in marijuana.

The proposed law would also allow hemp to be processed into CBD oil and other products. Producers would need to obtain a license from the state and a permit to transport it.

Keystone XL and ‘riot-boosting’ laws

The Legislature will take on another issue of last year as it addresses potential demonstrations against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Noem has  resurrected the topic of “riot boosting” after parts of a law created last year were nullified by legal proceedings. Many Republicans say they will support her renewed push to prosecute those who “urge” riots.

The Legislature last year passed two bills in a matter of days to address potentially disruptive demonstrations against the pipeline. One of the laws aimed to prosecute people who directed or encouraged rioting, known as “riot boosting.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, arguing that the 2019 legislation violated freedom of speech. A federal judge in September blocked portions of the statutes, and the state agreed not to enforce parts of the laws in a settlement.

Noem has already floated draft bills that she says would permit free speech while prosecuting people who “urge” force or violence if it is “imminent.” The proposed legislation would get rid of language the ACLU argued was too broad and could have been used against people encouraging rioters on social media. Instead, Noem’s draft legislation attempts to limit riot boosting prosecution to people who directly urge force or violence and provides protection for peaceful protests.

Last year, the riot boosting laws sparked blowback from Native American groups that felt they were being targeted due to their opposition to the pipeline. Noem and lawmakers have said they will be taking more time this year to dig into the legislation and hear from people affected by the bills.

A proposal to create an emergency fund for cleanup in the event of a spill is also in the works. The company operating the pipeline would have to pay for the fund.

Treating mental health

Lawmakers say they are alarmed at South Dakota’s suicide rate, especially in rural areas. They will bring a series of bills aimed at improving the state’s mental health resources.

The bills aim to make mental health care available across the state through virtual consultations. Lawmakers want to make it possible for counselors or mental health care professionals to help people through phone calls, text, or video consultations. In order to do that, they say they will need broadband internet access in rural communities.

Farmers have indicated that many are struggling financially after a rough year of weather and international trade disruptions. South Dakota led the nation in unplanted acres last year after storms and flooding hit many parts of the state. Lawmakers said they will be looking for ways to help farmers recover and encourage growth in the state’s economy.

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