South Dakota legislative round-up: Five items you missed this week
Nuclear power, skin-of-your-teeth votes and Gov. Kristi Noem puts an eye on China
PIERRE, S.D. — The fourth week has come to a close in the South Dakota State Capitol.
The legislative calendar's lone five-day week saw Gov. Kristi Noem's first bill signings, a fiery late-night quasi-trial straight out of network court dramas and lawmakers putting their heads down to work through the detritus littering legislative binders and committee chambers.
Several key deadlines, namely the final day to submit bills to legislative staff, have already passed, and lawmakers will have to be more selective with the bills they choose to carry.
"You handled some procedural issues that no other Senate has had to do recently. You came through [this week], in my opinion, admirably," Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, the top lawmaker in the chamber, said to wrap up Friday's session. "And so, to the pages, you guys have been here for an impressive period in the history of the South Dakota Senate, and you got to see good people doing good work for your folks back home."
Here are five things you may have missed this week.
Summer study topics begin to take shape
Though South Dakota currently has no nuclear plants, a large group of senators led by Sen. Brent Hoffman, of Sioux Falls, wants to study how the constantly-evolving technology could fit into the energy security and economic prosperity of the state.
“We have a lot of wind, we have a coal plant in the state and, if nuclear fits, I think we need to study that,” said Sen. Steve Kolbeck, of Brandon, a new arrival who outside the political arena works as the principal manager for Xcel Energy in the state.
Of course, rather than approving a nuclear plant next week and inflicting meltdown fears on constituents, lawmakers in favor of the relatively clean, stable and efficient energy source are taking their time.
“Obviously it's not going to be a lovefest, right? It's going to be some people are concerned about it. Some people aren't, they think it’s great. Some people think you got to do something with the waste. But there's waste in everything,” Kolbeck said. “And life is about measuring risks, is the risk worth the reward?”
The desire to slow down, bring together wide variations of expertise and think hard about solving difficult problems, is the main thrust behind the summer studies, an annual tradition that brings select groups of lawmakers to a (much warmer) Pierre.
According to Schoenbeck, the best summer studies combine issues that are sure to come up in the following session with a narrow focus that allows lawmakers to be educated on the topic and potentially propose solutions.
“Don't make world peace,” Schoenbeck said to illustrate the point. “These world peace resolutions, that's just wasting everybody's time and money and legislators get frustrated.”
In the 2022 “interim session,” as it’s called, these summer studies birthed legislative solutions on juvenile justice, medical cannabis, incarceration and a host of other topics.
From a process standpoint, the summer studies themselves are usually approved by the Executive Board in March or April following the session. During the session, lawmakers will propose resolutions “encouraging” the board to choose a certain topic, though after session the board can decide unilaterally from a list of topics.
During the coming interim session, Schoenbeck pointed to issues such as long-term care funding and child care as likely candidates for topics that don’t need legislative backing. But, for topics not as completely on the radar, like nuclear power, the resolution process can be an important way to begin conversations.
In addition to the study on nuclear power, which passed the Senate 34-0 on Jan. 30 and heads to the House, potential studies and task forces in the interim could include emerging young adults in the prison system and childhood mental health, though several other ideas have already been tossed aside.
Noem takes on China, potentially angering some in South Dakota agriculture
Gov. Kristi Noem is wading into foreign policy with a proposal to better scrutinize foreign purchases of agricultural land, a bill she has touted on national television and in the halls of the South Dakota State Capitol.
“I have brought forward legislation, with a couple of partners in our legislature that would ban the purchases of ag land in South Dakota by enemies that hate us,” Noem said during a spot on Newsmax on Feb. 1.
That legislation is Senate Bill 185, which creates a Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States-South Dakota, a five-person, state-level version of the federal agency that reviews strategic purchases of American assets by foreign actors. The committee would review purchases of South Dakota farmland from foreign actors, entities or governments, and promises a turnaround of at most 180 days. Its decision can be appealed.
Though a near-copy of the federal body, a fact sheet handed out by the governor to legislators notes that the federal CFIUS has a “significant backlog and does not catch every bad actor.” Furthermore, while South Dakota law already seeks to restrict certain purchases
On the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 30, Noem brought in reinforcements for the message. Steve Yates, who chairs the China Policy Initiative at the America First Policy Institute, hosted a discussion attended by several legislators, many with agricultural backgrounds, as well as a handful of lobbyists with the industry.
[The Communist Party of China] is dividing Americans and trying to have access to, sometimes intellectual, control over its strategic resources,” Yates said during his half-hour speech. “I can't think of a more important strategic resource than our land, second only to our families.”
Yet this legislation, though well-intentioned, might end up dividing the caucus, too. Rep. Gary Cammack, of Union Center, the prime sponsor of the bill in the House, said he had heard concerns from legislators and lobbyists regarding the potential to slow down transactions and infringe on property rights.
“They're well-found concerns, and during the next week or so we're going to spend a lot of time having those aired and talked about,” he said. “We're looking forward to either finding that we can allay those concerns or have some different things that change to make the bill better.”
Department of Corrections shares hopeful message of slow, steady turnaround to appropriators
The first weeks of the session in Room 362, which houses the Joint Appropriations Committee, have been filled with spreadsheets and presentations from the departments and bureaus that make up the machinery of state government.
On Monday, Jan. 30, appropriators heard from potentially one of the most anticipated presentations — a marathon session on the state’s incarceration and rehabilitation systems led by Secretary Kellie Wasko with the Department of Corrections, which is set to begin tackling well-documented issues of aging infrastructure and workforce shortages with hundreds of millions in state funds.
Wasko, who entered the position less than one year ago, has impressed lawmakers with her vision for the state’s correctional program and knowledge of how to get there. Though problems still remain, Wasko described some of the progress she’s made in implementing modern corrections, from better security practices to more comprehensive training programs.
“There are so many mini-fires to put out all at once, as appropriators our job is to say how can we help,” Sen. Jean Hunhoff, of Yankton, the chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee, said.
In terms of infrastructure, Wasko described facilities in the state well above their designed population, with the women’s prison in Pierre and the men’s prison in Sioux Falls both housing some 160% of their designed capacity. The testimony underscored the need for the state to move quickly on the planned construction of entirely new facilities in each case.
“Ideally you want to have about a five-percent vacancy rate, and that allows us to have beds to appropriately provide programs,” Wasko said.
On the workforce side, security staff vacancies reached a high of 156 across the system in December, despite a marked increase in starting and progressing salaries that came from moving money for vacant positions around. Still, numbers from January indicate that the department made 24 hires with only three departures, the first positive month since her tenure began, and Wasko was hopeful that the tide was beginning to turn, as more staff means less reliance on grueling overtime schedules.
“We are starting to see those shifts get filled, and I’m hoping to see relief for those staff going forward,” Wasko said.
Lawmakers move forward with changes to better deal with substance abuse
An update to the state’s involuntary commitment law to better reflect the best practices in treating substance abuse is on its way to the House after breezing through the health committee last week and the Senate floor on Feb. 1.
In South Dakota, involuntary commitment for substance abuse is already occurring, allowing hospitals to treat “intoxicated persons” under the influence of drugs or alcohol for up to five days, or longer with the permission of a court.
“Many of [these statutes] have been without review since the 1970s and 80s,” Madeline Miller, the nurse manager at a detox facility in Sioux Falls, said while testifying in favor of the bill in committee last week. “There's quite a lot that has changed over time.”
In keeping up with the science of substance abuse, Senate Bill 67, carried by Sen. Erin Tobin, of Winner, and Rep. Mike Stevens, of Yankton, adds those “receiving treatment for withdrawal management” to the definition of intoxicated, allowing hospitals and substance abuse clinics to treat those experiencing withdrawals, too.
“Patients typically experience symptoms that need observation and treatment well past that initial intoxication,” Miller told Forum News Service. “So this just allows a treatment facility to really include that whole scope of not only Immediate stabilization when they're under the influence but also ensuring that they're stabilized in the withdrawal.”
In addition to adding withdrawal symptoms as a cause for commitment, the proposal also attempts to streamline the process by which someone can be referred to a substance use treatment facility for a longer period of time, usually 30 to 45 days, which requires the approval of a court.
The bill requires that the patient be informed of their right to legal representation and spells out the court process for the chemical dependency tests that are a major part of determining whether commitment is the right step.
“Right now there's really no clear step for having that person be assessed by a clinician that's trained to really make that determination of whether or not they have a problem,” Miller said. “So historically we've used an emergency process or had to facilitate multiple hearings, which is additional work for the judicial side. And we're really not serving people efficiently or effectively with that process.”
Senate sees heated debates, extremely tight votes
This week saw the most emotional debate yet this session in the House over House Bill 1080, the bill banning hormone therapy and transgender surgery.
Yet the usually more low-key Senate saw its fair share of debate, too, with the exceedingly rare occurrence of 18-17 votes on consecutive days.
“Those were robust, respectful debates, and they’re fun to be a part of,” said Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison.
The first one-vote contest came on Feb. 1, with the body voting down Isabel Sen. Ryan Maher’s proposal to raise limits and payouts on video lottery machines in the state — increasing per-bet limits from $2 to $4 and maximum awards per bet from $1,000 to $2,500.
Maher made the point that keeping the business profitable in an inflationary environment would require a bump in bet limits.
Sen. Jim Bolin, of Canton, pointed out that video lottery revenues have continued setting records, with more than $175 million put into the state’s general funds last year, according to the Department of Revenue, dollars that go to schools and other basic state services.
He also made the argument that the state has a duty to protect the most habitual players from themselves.
“Every study that we have on this particular human activity clearly demonstrates that the main players — not exclusively only — but the main players of this addictive behavior are some of the most vulnerable people in our society as far as decision making is concerned,” Bolin said.
In a fitting end to the video lottery vote, Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, of Rapid City, minutes after being reinstated to her full powers as a senator, passed during her first vote, which put her final chance to vote after all others had voted.
Following Sen. Larry Zikmund, of Sioux Falls, the vote in the chamber stood at 17-17. Frye-Mueller’s “nay” was decisive.
The other one-vote debate came on Feb. 2, with the 18-17 chamber approving a proposal carried by Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron, to create a task force to study young adults emerging from the criminal justice system. Leading the opposition was Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown.
“We don’t need this legislation,” Schoenbeck said. “What we need to do is pay attention to the real problem which is the destruction we’ve done to the juvenile justice system.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.