PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee narrowly passed a Senate Resolution of Disapproval aimed at stopping Gov. Kristi Noem’s plan to merge the state’s Department of Agriculture with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, passed its first hurdle on a 4-3 vote on March 3. It now goes to the full Senate.

Sen. Troy Heinert, R-Mission. (South Dakota Legislature photo)
Sen. Troy Heinert, R-Mission. (South Dakota Legislature photo)

Noem in January signed an executive order to merge the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Under the order, both former departments are to be abolished, with their duties transferred to a new department to be called the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Hunter Roberts, current Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources and acting-Secretary of Agriculture, will serve as the cabinet secretary for the new department, a statement from Noem's office said.

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According to the South Dakota Constitution, governors are allowed to make such organizational orders unilaterally. The orders must come within five legislative days of the start of a legislative session then are enacted in 90 days unless a majority of members of either the state House or Senate disapprove of it.

Senate Resolution of Disapproval 901 says agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry and “deserves a state department whose resources and expertise are devoted to the promotion of the agriculture industry.” The resolution also says having the two existing departments serve as a “valuable check and balance.”

Those opposed to the merger who spoke at the hearing largely focused on potential negative impacts to agriculture if the industry does not have a devoted department. Heinert said the agencies serve different and important purposes.

“Those deserve their own departments. They deserve people’s attention full time,” he said.

South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke said membership in his organization unanimously voted to oppose the merger.

Rebecca Terk, representing Dakota Rural Action, said she fears that the newly created department will have less time for ag promotion activities. She cited one example of something that already has happened. Dakota Rural Action worked with the state ag department to get a $100,000 farm-to-school grant. However, the ag department informed Dakota Rural Action that they no longer had time to work on such a program.

“We can’t have that program or others like it when we neuter our Department of Agriculture,” she said.

Those who spoke in favor of the merger said it will save an estimated $450,000 per year and will make regulatory functions more streamlined, providing a one-stop shop for services. Hunter Roberts said no laws are changing as a result of the merger, so he sees no potential for adverse effects to the environment or to agriculture.

Additionally, some agriculture promotion tasks already have been transferred to the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Michael Held, lobbyist for South Dakota Farm Bureau, called the merger a “Common-sense, practical approach” to government.

Many members of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee seemed conflicted about the issue, with several indicating they were voting to move the resolution out of committee so that the entire Senate could consider it.

“Some issues need to be heard in front of the entire body,” said Sen. V.J. Smith, R-Brookings. “This easily passes that bar.”