PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota state Legislature, normally a frugal body, is even deeper into its one-time money jackpot than first thought thanks largely to federal pandemic bailouts.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, Gov. Kristi Noem announced new revenue projections that find the state has an additional $125 million to spend this legislative session, emboldening lawmakers and the governor who've brought bills asking for a new rodeo complex to a prison expansion and even a state airplane.
Addressing a packed House of Representatives chamber, just a day after the second member of the body was confirmed to test positive for COVID-19, Noem heralded the extra funds, derived from new flexibilities with the Coronavirus Relief Funds and other "one-time revenues," as "historic," but she cautioned against a heedless spending spree.
"History tells us that this dramatic growth could decline once the effects of federal stimulus wears off," said Noem, who doubled-down on her urge to invest $50 million in a trust fund.
The state's windfall, in part, epitomizes South Dakota's posture throughout much of the pandemic.
While the state has the nation's second-highest infection rate per-capita of COVID-19 and is tied-for-sixth highest death rate, the state's leadership has fashioned themselves as persevering in the face of the pandemic. In recent weeks, many testifiers at committee meetings at the Statehouse have referred to the pandemic in the past tense, even while news broke on Monday of a spread of the virus in the Legislature.
Rep. Ryan Cwach, a Yankton Democrat, told reporters following Noem's address that he believed more of the one-time funds should be spent to shore-up pandemic-related costs and losses for the state's residents.
"I don't think it's appropriate for South Dakota to use $25 million of CARES Act funds for rural broadband, even though that is a worthy goal," said Cwach, addressing Noem's request of $100 million to fund connectivity expansion across the state.
Cwach said, instead, the funds should be used for local government, schools and people "for costs directly related to COVID-19."
But the state enjoys wide latitude with how deciding how to spends the massive federal pandemic relief spending from Congress, and in addition to Noem's big request for broadband funding, pet projects have emerged from legislators wanting to study hydrology in drought-ravaged regions to invest $50 million in needs-based scholarships.
In Tuesday's House Transportation hearing, the committee entertained a measure to spend $4 million of the state's general fund to pave a road in Fall River County that terminated at a popular state recreation area at Angostura Reservoir.
The funding request appeared to catch some committee members flat-footed.
"We don't have a lot of these bills that have come through really for paving specific roads," committee chairman Rep. Caleb Finck, R-Tripp, admitted at one point during the hearing.
Eventually, the committee voted to kill the measure.
"I cannot appropriate money sideways like this," said Rep. Ernie Otten, R-Tea.
Still, for a body that in a typical legislative cycle may spend $15 million in one-time funds, they are signaling a buyer's appetite for larger, infrastructure projects.
On Tuesday in Senate Education, Sen. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, testified on behalf of a measure to spend $34 million on a new mining and geology building at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
"The mining and geology building on the School of Mines campus is in embarrassing and dilapidated condition," noted Johnson, suggesting the replacement was long overdue.
Before the measure passed on a unanimous vote, committee chairman Sen. Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, fielded questions from students in attendance about some of the terminology at-play in the debate and measure.
One student asked what the phrase "to declare an emergency" means in state law (i.e. the authorization, which requires a two-thirds majority to spend money prior to the start of the new fiscal year in the summer).
"It takes a lot more people to pass it," said Curd. "And that's because we're spending so much money."
Those words couldn't be truer this year in Pierre.