Sen. Art Rusch

Even though the 2020 legislative session ended in March, the members of the Senate have been caucusing on line via "Team," on a nearly weekly basis to debate and discuss issues of importance to the state of South Dakota. The biggest issue has been the expenditure of the federal coronavirus dollars that have been given to South Dakota. Unfortunately, as I explained last week, the federal guidelines as to how that money can be spent have been changing frequently.

Last week the federal government announced that they would now allow distributions to schools on a per pupil basis even though the money could not be tied directly to any coronavirus related costs. As a result of this new guideline, South Dakota immediately sent $75 million to the schools across the state based on $500 for every student. I am sure that will help every school, but it increases the inequalities across the state because rich schools get the same money per student as poor schools even though the poor schools have greater needs.

Under the federal law, the Governor has full authority as to how this coronavirus money will be spent. Even though she doesn't have to, she has been listening to the legislature and following our advice about how to spend the federal money. However, some legislators want to have a special session of the legislature to set out in law exactly how the money must be spent.

If that is done, then where the money goes is set in stone and there is no flexibility even though the federal guidelines are changing on a frequent basis. As an example, if the legislature had met two weeks ago and determined how all of the federal money should be spent, there would have been no flexibility to have allocated the $75 million to the schools this week because two weeks ago no one knew that was a possibility.

The Senate is still looking for ways to use some of the coronavirus money to benefit small businesses, including agricultural businesses, that have suffered as a result of the coronavirus and the resulting shutdowns. The difficulty is in figuring out a way to measure the harm that each of these businesses have suffered.

We do not want to give every business the same amount of money regardless of the actual losses they have suffered. We also want to set up a method of impartially allocating the moneys so there is no question that any of the money is being allocated as a result of favoritism or political influence. We also want to make the process as simple as possible so that the money isn’t eaten up with administrative costs.

A second goal that is important to the senators is to allocate some of the money for community support providers and health care providers who have lost money as a result of the coronavirus.

One of the procedural steps that will be taken to determine how to allocate this money will be a series of "listening sessions" to come up with recommendations. However, regardless of what recommendations the legislature hears at the listening sessions, we will still have to comply with the federal guidelines, and they may be inconsistent. The listening sessions are going to be held by some of the legislative committees.

During the past six legislative sessions I have served on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and that will be one of the committees that will be conducting a listening session. We will be having our listening session on Sept. 22 over the internet. Anyone can submit written testimony 48 hours prior to the hearing or testify in person. Written testimony can be submitted or anyone can register to testify in person through HealthHumanServices@sdlegislature.gov.

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