Lawmakers drill down into county funding, long-term care study scopes

Summer studies looking to fix a "broken" long-term care system that's resulted in several nursing home closures and a county funding paradigm that's squeezing budgets are set to kick off in June.

The South Dakota Legislature's Executive Board held a meeting on April 20, 2023, to hammer down the details of two legislative policy deep-dives. Pictured is House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, of Pierre, discussing initial study considerations at the previous meeting on March 27, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — Deciding whether or not to include the words “and their utilization” in the scope for lawmakers studying county funding issues this summer may appear to be little more than legislative minutiae.

But the small details can make a real difference.

The scope of the planned study on county revenues and expenses initially instructed lawmakers to “further study the available revenue sources to the counties.”

Yet House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, of Pierre, thought that only studying additional revenue sources might preclude lawmakers from looking at how counties are currently utilizing their revenue, potentially diving into why certain counties are more precarious than others despite similar revenue sources and spending obligations.

“I think we also need to take a look at the utilization of the revenue sources that we currently make available to those counties,” Mortenson said. “So we're not looking just at what new revenue sources might be, but whether the revenue sources that we have already provided in state law are being utilized to their full extent.”


While the topics of the long-term care model and keeping counties financially solvent had already been selected at the Executive Board’s last meeting, the 15-member committee populated by several top lawmakers set their April 20 meeting aside to comb the wording and cement the exact study scope, a consequential decision in the kinds of inquiry the study groups can undertake.

Summer studies allow a group of lawmakers to gain context on important topics and bring in different sets of expertise. This year, they'll focus on nursing home sustainability and county issues.

Summer studies, which allow about a dozen lawmakers to bring together information and stakeholders on the chosen topics, usually hope to generate legislation — or, at the very least, a base of knowledge — for a set of issues that figures to be a major part of the upcoming legislative session.

The chair of each summer study is tasked with militantly keeping their group on task and avoiding the dread of a “world peace” study, a trademark phrase of Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, that conveys a study that lacks focus and fails to bring results.

This past session, the issue of county funding, especially around keeping up with the rising costs of building and staffing jails, earned hours of debate but no concrete results.

On top of funding mechanisms, the county summer study comes in conjunction with efforts to examine what the state may be able to remove from the county’s plate, beginning with a task force by the Unified Judicial System dealing with public defense costs.

In long-term care, lawmakers this past session were able to pass major increases to state funding of nursing homes and other providers through higher Medicaid reimbursement rates; however, that promise is only one year long, and in more fiscally lean years that rate could end up on the chopping block.

With that in mind, lawmakers are hoping to figure out how the delivery of long-term care could be modernized, especially as the population around the country and in South Dakota begins to age.

“What we're going to look at is data-driven results and incentivizing a new model,” Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison, said, referencing several nursing home closures around the state in the past year. “So not really continuing to find ways to push money into a model that is clearly broken.”


The studies will kick off in June; Mortenson said he expects each collection of lawmakers to meet about five or six times throughout the interim.

“We have to think about what our priorities are, especially considering the threats we face around the world,” South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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