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Vehle pushes for $6M rail rehab bill

State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, speaks with Harlan Quenzer, of Mitchell, shortly after a legislative forum held Saturday at Mitchell Technical Institute. Vehle and District 20's two other legislators, Rep. Lance Carson and Rep. Tona Rozum, both Republicans from Mitchell, were on hand for a crowd of nearly 40 people who attended the event. (Chris Mueller/Republic)

State Sen. Mike Vehle is continuing to encourage support for his bill that would provide $6 million in state funding for a continuing effort to rebuild a stretch of old railroad west of the Missouri River.

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Vehle, R-Mitchell, represents District 20, which is made up of Davison, Aurora and Jerauld counties. He spoke during a legislative forum Saturday at Mitchell Technical Institute, along with his fellow District 20 legislators, Rep. Lance Carson and Rep. Tona Rozum, both Republicans from Mitchell.

On Friday, the Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed Vehle's bill to fund additional repairs to the Mitchell to Rapid City rail line. A $28 million rehabilitation of rail line between Mitchell and Chamberlain was completed in 2012 and was partially funded by a $16 million federal grant.

Vehle said the $6 million in state funding included in his bill would allow the rail line to be repaired to Reliance, which is located about 15 miles west of the Missouri River.

"We're taking one-time money and putting it into something that will give us returns on down the road," Vehle said, addressing a crowd of nearly 40 people at Saturday's event. "That's what you want."

In the long term, Vehle said the goal is to extend the rail line to Presho, which is located another 25 miles west of Reliance.

"You've got to start it out with a piece," he said.

Vehle's bill does not include any money to repair the railroad bridge across the Missouri River at Chamberlain. But, on Jan. 29, House members overwhelmingly approved a plan put forward by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, voting 61-2 to put $1.2 million into the state's railroad trust fund to repair the bridge. The bill has since been referred to a Senate committee.

The $1.2 million comes from a portion of the funds the state collected from unclaimed property. Unclaimed property is money turned over to the state from bank accounts and other property for which the owners cannot be found.

The stretch of the rail line repaired between Mitchell and Chamberlain is already in use, due mainly to Gavilon Liberty Grain, a grain-loading facility that opened in September 2012. The $35.5 million facility is capable of taking grain from area farmers and loading it on 110-car shuttle trains, mostly bound for West Coast ports.

"If that wasn't there, that would all be on the road," Vehle said, referring to the Liberty Grain facility.

Before Liberty Grain began running rail cars, the rail line had not supported regular service since the mid-1990s.

Gun legislation

Vehle defended a piece of legislation he co-sponsored that would allow the state to submit the names of anyone not allowed to purchase a firearm because of certain mental illnesses to a federal database.

The bill, HB 1229, was passed 53-17 by the House last week, with both Carson and Rozum voting in favor of the legislation. The bill will next go to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Vehle said he has received an influx of calls regarding the bill, mainly due to a robocall urging people to contact him.

"It says that I'm trying to take away your gun and that whole nine yards," he said.

Vehle said the bill, which has received support from the National Rifle Association, is not a threat to the public's Second Amendment rights.

"We don't take guns away from everyone," he said. "We look for the problem and we deal with the problem."

The legislation would also apply to anyone acquitted of a crime due to mental illness, and allows anyone affected to ask for a hearing before a judge to attempt to have their right to own a firearm restored.

"I think that's a fair thing to do," Vehle said.

Carson said many of the people he has spoken to who oppose the legislation haven't actually read the bill.

"If you look at what the bill says, it's something we need," Carson said.

Coaches' tax exemption

Rozum said she is attempting to get a bill passed that would exempt coaches of amateur baseball teams sponsored by nonprofits, such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, from paying taxes on the income they're paid.

Rozum has attempted to pass similar legislation in the past few years, but was voted down by opponents who she said claimed the bill was subsidizing those groups on the backs of government.

"I wasn't quick enough to say, no, we we're subsidizing government on the backs of kids," she said.

The bill passed 57-11 in the House last week and is set to be heard today by the Senate Taxation Committee.