Prison numbers, oil among legislative agenda itemsLocal lawmakers talk about priorities for 2013 session.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
A soon to be five-term state senator from Mitchell says he still gets excited by the new people and fresh ideas at the outset of each new legislative session.
“You’re always wondering how a new Legislature is going to work,” said Sen. Mike Vehle , R-Mitchell. “It’s a steep learning curve, and shucks, I’m still learning.”
The 2013 legislative session begins Tuesday in Pierre, when Vehle and his fellow District 20 legislators, Rep. Tona Rozum , R-Mitchell, and Rep Lance Carson, R-Mitchell, each return to the Capitol. Their district includes Davison, Aurora and Jerauld counties.
Besides a texting-while-driving ban proposed by Vehle that has been reported on by The Daily Republic and other media outlets around the state, the legislators have several main issues on their mind.
Vehle, Rozum and Carson all think legislative action will be needed to curb the state’s growing prison population.
South Dakota’s prison population surpassed 3,600 inmates in 2012, a more than 500 percent increase since the late 1970s, and is expected to grow to 4,500 inmates in the next 10 years, according a report issued in November by the South Dakota Criminal Justice Initiative. The increase is expected to cost taxpayers $224 million, the report says.
In 2012, more than 81 percent of inmates were in prison for nonviolent offenses. Inmates in prison for drug possession outnumber every other type of offense, the report says.
“We just can’t throw these people into prison, then pull them out and think they’ve learned their lesson,” Rozum said. “They need help.”
Though none of the three had drafted any specific legislation, they agreed change is necessary.
“We know we need to come up with a solution,” Carson said. “Either that, or get ready to spend some money on building new prisons.”
More community-based intensive supervision and treatment programs could reduce the number of drug offenders going to prison, Vehle said.
“If we’re going to have them come back in society, we want to make sure they can fit back in society,” he said.
Oil and gas
Revising outdated oil and gas regulations will be “on the top of the list” for Rozum, 67, as she enters her second term in the House.
Though South Dakota is not expected to experience oil and gas development on the level of North Dakota, the state should still work to put itself in the best possible position to develop what resources it has, she said.
“With the drillers so close in North Dakota, we want to make sure we have our ducks in a row,” she said.
Rozum plans to carry a bill that would allow for out-of-court mediation between drillers and landowners. She hopes the bill will encourage drillers to be more responsible about returning the land back to its original state and create a sense of fairness with landowners.
“There’s not enough communication,” she said. “It’s about allowing people to come to the table and talk.”
Rozum hopes the Legislature will raise plugging and performance bonds, currently set at $5,000 per well or $20,000 for a blanket bond, which drillers forfeit if the well is not properly plugged and the land is not properly restored once the well is shut down.
Carson, vice-chairman of the House appropriations committee, said budget cuts the Legislature made a few years ago have put South Dakota ahead, and as a result Carson expects more spending requests from legislators this session.
Carson is entering his fourth term in the House.
“I think the session is going to be very interesting, with the dollars and cents that will be spent,” he said. “We made it out of the turndown in the economy better than most states.”
Agencies with reduced funding in recent years have worked hard to stay within their budgets, so much so that $13 million was returned to the state last year, Carson said.
Carson plans to introduce a bill reinstating funding cuts from prior budgets for the state’s veterans’ service officers.
Budget discussions in the upcoming session will be complicated by ongoing fiscal disputes at the federal level, Vehle said.
“That’s going to be hanging over us,” he said.
Whatever the outcome at the federal level, Carson expects a busy year of budget requests in South Dakota.
“I think we’re going to need all 40 days,” he said.