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Senate is unanimous on veterans cemetery

PIERRE -- The Legislature is halfway to establishing a Sioux Falls cemetery for veterans of the nation's armed forces, their spouses and their minor children.

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PIERRE - The Legislature is halfway to establishing a Sioux Falls cemetery for veterans of the nation's armed forces, their spouses and their minor children.

South Dakota currently has the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis, more than 350 miles from the state's largest city.

The state Senate voted unanimously Wednesday for the financial framework for the Sioux Falls site.

"Twenty years," Sen. Jim Stalzer, R-Sioux Falls, said as he began his remarks. That's how long military veterans have been trying to get another cemetery, Stalzer said.

SB 91 heads to the House of Representatives next. The governor's office also was represented at the negotiating session Monday morning.

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The Sioux Falls city government would donate a minimum of 40 acres near the interchange of I-90 and I-29 on the northwest side.

Stalzer said a preliminary application to the National Cemetery Administration is necessary before July 1 to be eligible for the 2019 funding round.

South Dakota has a strong chance of receiving a $6 million grant, he said. In the meantime state government needs to spend about $600,000 for planning and designing.

Presuming delivery of the $6 million grant, which would also cover initial costs for equipment under the plan, the $600,000 would be repaid into an operating fund.

There would be 2,068 burial plots dug across 13 acres. Sod and other materials would serve as a temporary cover on each plot until it is needed.

Stalzer said the goal for the veterans groups is to raise at least $3 million by July 1, 2023. The endowment would produce about $150,000 annually at current 4 percent-plus rates of interest and the Legislature would budget more money if needed.

"We will continue to try to raise money beyond that point," Stalzer said.

Among those he thanked were three of the candidates for governor this year who sent letters of support: Attorney General Marty Jackley and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, who are Republicans; and Democratic state Sen. Billie Sutton.

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Sen. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, said there's been "a consistent request" from veterans groups since at least his first year as a legislator in 2011.

"We owe it to them. This is a bill that is long past due," Nelson said. "We have to pass this. I respectfully ask you to pass this."

Veterans dotted the Senate gallery.

Sen. Larry Tidemann, R-Brookings, said tough questions were asked because lawmakers wanted to be sure the cemetery project is sustainable.

"We found out a lot of good information as we went through the process," the co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Appropriations said. "Yes, it is the time, and sometimes it takes the right moment to bring it to fruition."

Sen. Kevin Killer, D-Pine Ridge, said his father and grandfathers served in the U.S. Army. His father is buried in Black Hills National Cemetery.

"That was really compelling testimony we had from service members in committee," Killer said about the hearing held a month ago by the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. "It's long overdue."

Sen. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark, said the moment of unity Wednesday was testament to the veterans groups. "If not for them deciding to get behind it back in the summer and fall, we probably wouldn't be at this point now," Greenfield said.

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Stalzer, given the chance to make closing remarks, declined the invitation.

"No, I would just mess it up," he said.

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