Art Rusch

The South Dakota Legislature has now finished the fifth week of our legislative session with a four day weekend as a result of the President’s day holiday. There was an on-line cracker barrel on Feb. 13 sponsored by the Vermillion Area Chamber and Development Company. Our two District 17 Representatives, Sydney Davis and Richard Vasgaard, also participated in the virtual cracker-barrel.

One of the topics that seemed to be of particular interest to the participants was where the state was headed with medical and recreational marijuana. There will be another virtual cracker-barrel sponsored by the VCDC on Feb. 27 and a live cracker barrel in Parker on the afternoon of Feb. 27.

Amendment A, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana was passed by 54% of the South Dakota voters last fall. This Amendment was held to be unconstitutional by a court decision last week. I have received several e-mails expressing outrage that the courts could do that. However bad and illegal laws are bad and illegal whether they are enacted by the legislature or by the voters.

The courts are responsible to make that determination subject to an appeal to the Supreme Court. However, due to that court decision, the legislature is making an effort to craft a recreational marijuana statute that will comply with the will of the voters but not include the procedural and structural defects that were part of Amendment A.

It appears to me that most legislators are very aware that a majority of the voters have indicated their desire to have legal marijuana use through their votes for Amendment A and I believe there will be a sincere effort to comply with that desire.

Important related issues have been brought up by some pending bills. SB143 would reduce South Dakota’s drug ingestion laws to misdemeanors except for repeat offenses. South Dakota is the only state in the United States which criminalizes drug ingestion and I have long favored eliminating or reducing those laws. The second bill is SB141 which would make it easier for people who have prior marijuana convictions to clear their record. I agree that if the use of marijuana is going to be legal in South Dakota, there should be a way for those who have prior convictions for conduct that is now legal, to clear their records.

A bill which I prepared, SB147, passed the Senate this week. SB147 provided that young defendants who received a life sentence for a crime they committed while they were less than 25 years of age, could ask for parole at age 50. It would then be up to the parole board to decide whether they were rehabilitated. The parole board is made up of nine people, three appointed by the attorney general, three by the governor and three by the Supreme Court.

The reason that I picked age 25 for the bill was that there is significant research showing that young people’s brains are still developing at that age. As a result, those defendants are less culpable for the offenses they commit at that age. As a judge, I learned that retribution is not the sole goal of incarceration – rehabilitation should also be a goal. I have no problem with keeping dangerous individuals locked up but why should the state of South Dakota spend $27,000 per year keeping someone locked up who has been rehabilitated?

The legislature is starting to make some decisions on budget items now. I don’t know what to think of the governor’s message last week that the State of South Dakota had $125 million more than had been anticipated when she delivered her budget address back in December. Not all of that money is actually in hand at the present time as that is a combination of more money than anticipated having come in during the past two months and higher projections for the rest of the fiscal year.

I certainly hope that means there will be enough money to put in the $50 million, which would be the state’s share of the $200 million Premier Scholarship program. I have worked for several years trying to get the legislature to fund the Dakota’s Promise Scholarship, a need-based scholarship program, at a $5 million level. I am pleased to see this needs-based scholarship program established and hope that the legislature will approve this funding which will lead to a $200 million scholarship fund.

In preparing a budget, the legislature uses projections from two sources, the Bureau of Finance and Management makes a projection and the Legislative Research Council make a projection. Regardless of which projection we feel is most accurate, the South Dakota legislature spends money conservatively. The State is required by our constitution to enact a balanced budget and there is always an inclination to spend less than projected rather than more since the legislature would rather have an end-of-year surplus than a deficit.

The projections we have heard are that there may be a significant drop in revenue in the following year and the State needs to be prepared for decline in revenue. That is the reason that the Governor has requested that we add $50 million to our reserves in addition to the $50 million for the scholarship program.

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