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Special sessions cost SD taxpayers roughly $47K per day. What are they and when are they needed?

To supplement their time away from their full-time jobs, legislators are paid for each legislative day they work. Assuming all 105 lawmakers attend, special sessions cost taxpayers $47,072.55 per day.

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An LED board displays the voting results during a South Dakota House of Representatives special session on April 12, 2022, at the South Dakota State Capitol.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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PIERRE — Since the Supreme Court’s recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, Senators and Representatives from across South Dakota are primed to head back to Pierre for a fourth special session in the past three years, a frequency of which has never before been seen in the state’s history.

In regular years, the South Dakota Legislature meets at the State Capitol for up to 40 days of session, running from mid-January to late-March. During this period, lawmakers meet to introduce bills, debate policy and constitutionality and vote to either enroll the bills into law or toss them out the window.

But various circumstances in state, national and global events could force lawmakers to return to the capitol as soon as possible to declare emergencies and pass immediate legislation or take other administrative action via special session.

So, what is a special session and how much do they cost?

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Rep. Oren L Lesmeister, D-Parade, speaks during a special session of the South Dakota Legislature on April 12, 2022, at the South Dakota State Capitol.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

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Special sessions provide solutions to emergent business

Special sessions in South Dakota are called by either the governor or — since a 1990 constitutional amendment — by a two-thirds concurrence of lawmakers from each house when a need arises to solve an issue that arises outside the timeframe of a regular legislative session.

“While the Legislature may address any subject at a regular session, special sessions are limited to a particular matter,” reads a memorandum from the South Dakota Legislative Research Council, who handles administrative dealings of the Legislature. “Myriad circumstances have historically led to special sessions, such as a pandemic, major court decisions, natural disasters, federal legislation or economic concerns.”

2022’s regular session marked the 97th time lawmakers have gathered for a regular session. In the midst of those meetings, governors and legislators in South Dakota have called for 20 special sessions, according to the South Dakota State Library’s collection of Session Laws.

With the first legislature meeting in 1890, more than half of those special conventions have taken place since 2000, tackling various issues the state faced that couldn’t be addressed during regular session.

A prime example, as lawmakers were drawing their business to a close during the 2020 regular session, state health officials and Gov. Kristi Noem began monitoring the breakout and global transmission of the coronavirus, which was rapidly spreading across the world.

After the U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act, South Dakota received $1.25 billion in additional federal funding from what’s also known as the coronavirus relief fund. Designated only for specific purposes, including the reimbursement of additional costs incurred by public institutions relating to the outbreak, the Legislature reconvened on Oct. 5, 2020, to begin the appropriations process.

In just one legislative day, lawmakers were able to expend just under $500 million in reimbursements to public entities and establish multiple grant programs for eligible small businesses, start-ups, non-profits, healthcare organizations and more that faced hardships as a result of the pandemic.

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Other special sessions of note include the 2018 reconvention of the Legislature to amend the state’s tax code to regulate the taxation of remote sellers after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state in South Dakota v. Wayfair, as well as the 1997 reconvention, which increased gas taxes to compensate for an $8 million disbursement of funds to local governments for road and bridge repairs following the 1997 blizzard and floods.

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Members of the senate convene for a special session on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, at the state capital in Pierre.
Mitchell Republic file photo

How much do special sessions cost?

Lawmakers are elected officials from across the state, many of whom are still employed. Under South Dakota law, employers must provide those elected to the state House of Representatives and Senate time off work, paid or unpaid, without punishment of pay rate or status.

To supplement their time away from work, legislators are paid for each legislative day they work, as well as provided a per diem for daily expenses such as lodging and food. They’re also compensated a constitutionally-prescribed five cents for each mile driven to and from the Capitol on the “most normal route.”

“Few, if any, legislators run for office with the expectation of getting rich. They should also not have to suffer a financial hardship to do so, but, in reality, some of them do,” reads a 2016 memorandum from the SDLRC. “Low pay limits who can serve in the Legislature and who will run for the office. Legislative salaries, in general, have not kept pace with inflation, and they have also not kept pace with increases in the workload and the time commitment involved in legislating.”

Committee members
Members of the House Select Committee on Investigation listen and take notes during testimony on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, surrounding Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's crash.
Hunter Dunteman / Mitchell Republic

In 2020, legislators were paid $297.31 for each day worked, plus a $151 per diem, according to the most recent data available from the SDLRC. Excluding the cost of mileage and assuming all 105 legislators are in attendance, each day of special session costs taxpayers roughly $47,000.

However, not all lawmakers are required to be in attendance for each day of a special session.

Taking a closer look at the impeachment proceedings against former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, the House Select Committee on Investigation — a nine-person committee tasked with conducting an initial investigation into the avenue of impeachment — only met thrice outside of regular session. Those three meetings cost taxpayers $12,104.37.

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While other meetings of the select committee took place during regular session, Speaker of the House and Chairman of the Select Committee Spencer Gosch told the Argus Leader in April that attorney fees had already cleared $87,000 for nearly 300 hours worked by a special prosecutor and a paralegal.

Though some additional figures were not immediately available from the SDLRC, analysis of salary and per diem figures found South Dakota taxpayers spent over $164,000 for lawmakers to be present at the State Capitol for impeachment proceedings in the 2021 second special session. That figure does not include attorney fees for either the select committee investigation or the Senate’s trial.

Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, Noem announced she’s working with legislative leadership to convene for another special session so lawmakers can review certain laws surrounding abortion and women’s healthcare in an effort to “save lives and help mothers.”

Specific dates of the next special session have not yet been announced.

Dunteman covers general and breaking news as well as crime in the Mitchell Republic's 17-county coverage area. He grew up in Harrisburg, and has lived in South Dakota for over 20 years. He joined the Mitchell Republic in June 2021 after earning his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He can be reached at HDunteman@MitchellRepublic.com, or on Twitter @HRDunt.
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