South Dakota legislators pass state budget, then head home

March 8, 2024

PIERRE, S.D. (AP)–South Dakota’s Republican-led Legislature wrapped up on Thursday after about two months of work in a session that largely aligned with Gov. Kristi Noem’s vision and drew division over an abortion rights ballot initiative voters could decide in November.

Lawmakers sent a $7.3 billion budget for fiscal 2025 to Noem, including 4% increases for the state’s “big three” funding priorities of K-12 education, health care providers and state employees. The second-term Republican governor, citing, inflation, had pitched a budget tighter than in recent years that saw federal pandemic aid flow in.

The Legislature also passed bills funding prison construction, defining antisemitism, outlawing xylazine showing up with fentanyl, creating a state office of indigent legal services, ensuring teacher pay raises, and banning foreign entities such as China from owning farmland — all items on Noem’s wish list.

“I think she had a good year,” Republican House Majority Leader Will Mortenson said.

Lawmakers will be back in Pierre later this month to consider overriding any vetoes and to officially adjourn.

Republican lawmakers cemented official opposition to the abortion rights initiative with a resolution against it.

A Republican-led bill to allow signers of initiative petitions to withdraw their signatures drew opposition as a jab at direct democracy and a roadblock on the looming initiative’s path.

Lawmakers also approved a video to outline South Dakota’s abortion laws. South Dakota outlaws all abortions but to save the life of the mother.

Republicans said a video, done through the state Department of Health with consultation from the attorney general and legal and medical experts, would give clarity to medical providers on the abortion laws. Opponents questioned what all a video would include.

Medicaid expansion work requirement
In November, South Dakota voters will decide whether to allow a work requirement for recipients of Medicaid expansion. Voters approved the expansion of the government health insurance program for low-income people in 2022.

Republicans called the work requirement measure a “clarifying question” for voters. The federal government would eventually have to sign off on a work requirement, if advanced. Opponents said a work requirement would be unnecessary and ineffective and increase paperwork.

Sales tax cut
What didn’t get across the finish line was a permanent sales tax cut sought by House Republicans and supported by Noem. The proposal sailed through the House but withered in the Senate, where budget writers took a cautious approach, said Republican Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree.

“I think that’s smart, rooted financial management,” he said.

Last year, the Legislature approved a four-year sales tax cut of over $100 million annually, after initially weighing a grocery tax cut Noem campaigned on for reelection in 2022.

Voters could decide whether to repeal the food tax this year through a proposed ballot initiative. If passed, major funding questions would loom for lawmakers.

Leaders see wins, shortcomings
Republican majority leaders counted achievements in bills for landowner protections in regulating carbon dioxide pipelines, prison construction, boosts for K-12 education funding and literacy, and a tuition freeze for tech schools and universities.

“The No. 1 way you improve the future of every blue-collar family in South Dakota is you help their kids get an education and move up, and we’re doing that,” Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck told reporters Wednesday. “The tuition freeze, the scholarships we’ve created — we’re creating more opportunities for more families to move up the ladder in South Dakota and stay in South Dakota. That’s our No. 1 economic driver.”

Democrats highlighted wins in airport funding, setting a minimum teacher’s salary and pay increase guidelines, and making it financially easier for people for who are homeless to get birth certificates and IDs.

But they lamented other actions.

“We bought a $4 million sheep shed instead of feeding hungry kids school meals for a fraction of that price. We made hot pink a legal hunting apparel color, but we couldn’t keep guns out of small children’s reach through safer storage laws,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Reynold Nesiba told reporters Thursday. “We couldn’t even end child marriage with (a) bill to do that.”

As their final votes loomed, lawmakers visited at their desks and recognized departing colleagues.