Art Rusch

The South Dakota Legislature has now completed the fourth week of the 2021 session. We have completed day 17 and have 19 days to go. Crossover day will be on Feb. 25 which means that all bills must have been passed by the house where they started by that day, in other words they must have “crossed over” to the other house for consideration. The purpose of crossover day is to make sure that bills are progressing and don’t get backed up in one house to the point that it is impossible to complete work on all the bills within the legislative session which is 36 days this year.

There have been fewer social events this year during the legislative session. I think that is primarily due to the fear of COVID exposure, so many organizations that formerly put on receptions or dinners for the legislators have dropped those plans all together or substituted sack lunches for them instead. Still this week we had what is always the premier social event of the legislative season, the South Dakota National Guard Dining Out, which celebrates the service and dedication of both the Army National Guard and Air National Guard. This is always a glittering event with lots of attendees, both active duty and retired, wearing dress uniforms.

The Appropriations Committee has heard several presentations this week from different departments of state government. The Department of Human Services appeared and asked for an increase in their budget of nearly $26 million consisting of $9 million of state funds and $16 million of federal funds. Their total requested budget is $486 million. The Department of Revenue appeared and requested a total budget of $77 million but also asked for $4 million for implementing the recreational and medical marijuana initiatives passed by the voters last fall.

The Department of Health asked for $105 million and an increase of 13 employees. The additional employees would be Disease Intervention Specialists, Public Health Assistants and Epidemiologists. This budget request is lower than last year as they are not anticipating spending as much for medical care in the corrections facilities as they have in the past.

The Department of Corrections asked for $121 million and an increase of nine additional staff. This is an increase of about $1 million. The additional staff are primarily Re-entry Specialists and Parole agents.

The Legislature had several difficult votes this week. My bill to limit the death penalty passed in Senate Judiciary by a vote of 5-1. I appreciated the testimony of Professor Betty Smith from USD who testified that the research does not support any conclusion that the death penalty actually deters any crime and from a death penalty exoneree from Oklahoma who testified about how close he came to death before he was able to establish that he had been framed.

Other difficult votes were SB57 which revises the state employee health plan, SB68 which would have allowed funding for certain Native American schools in South Dakota, SB87 which would have allowed non-profit agriculture organizations to establish health benefit plans that would be exempt from insurance regulation and SB125 which would have mandated the use of masks in South Dakota. Although SB125 was defeated, I understand that there is a bill coming from the House of Representatives which would forbid any governmental entity from requiring the wearing of face masks.

On Friday morning the Senate Health and Human Services Committee heard the birth certificate bill which had passed the House. This bill would have forbidden transgender individuals from applying to have their birth certificates changed. This bill was defeated in committee by a vote of 6-0 and I think that will be the end of it. Every year I receive letters and e-mails denouncing the legislature for allowing bills such as this to be filed and for allowing hearings on them.

I think that these people miss the point – if we have a czar who can decide what legislation can be filed, then that person controls what legislation can be adopted in South Dakota. That is fine if you agree with the czar but not so good if you don’t. Our legislative process does not involve such a czar. Anyone can file whatever legislation they want – they get a hearing and if it is bad legislation it is defeated.

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