State budget: Pay raises, hemp, bridges and USD building
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A boost for “the big three” — the nickname in the South Dakota Capitol for teachers, state employees and support providers — was the big-ticket item on the budget lawmakers approved Thursday, but they also had money left over to fund a hemp program, build several university buildings and send a bit of money to counties to repair aging bridges.
The Legislature met into the night as they completed the main part of the session for the year. They concluded with a vote on the $4.9 billion budget that will take effect starting in July.
Not everyone was happy. Several especially conservative legislators voiced frustration with the budget-making process.
“This year has been especially acrimonious,” said Sen. Lance Russell, a Hot Springs Republican.
Rep. Taffy Howard, a Rapid City Republican, said that Gov. Kristi Noem undercut the process by announcing earlier in the week that the state could afford to fund 2% pay increases if they factored declines in Medicaid enrollment. Howard said the proposal didn’t give lawmakers enough time to dig into the proposal or account for the potential of the COVID-19 virus outbreak to cause an economic downturn.
The Republican governor told reporters before the budget vote that it was based on conservative financial projections and she was confident the budget could withstand an economic slump.
She watched from the galleries of both the House and Senate as they voted.
Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, said the process was more open and transparent than it was last year.
The budget had a bit more wiggle room than lawmakers anticipated when they convened in January. Better-than-expected revenues and declines in Medicaid eligibility allowed lawmakers to send nearly $55 million to funds for state employees, teachers and people who work at community programs that are mostly funded by Medicaid. They also approved a nearly $13 million boost this year to the health insurance pool for state employees.
Here’s a look at some other items they funded:
As part of lawmakers’ proposal to legalize industrial hemp, they approved a crucial demand from the governor — allotting $3.5 million that she says is necessary to “responsibly” startup and run a hemp program.
The governor wanted nearly $1.9 million in one-time funds to start-up the program, and a commitment of another $1.6 million to run it every year. Noem plans to spread the money across three state agencies, paying for up to 15 full-time staff positions, drug-testing equipment, drug-sniffing dogs and new drug storage space. The governor’s office has argued the money is necessary for law enforcement to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.
The University of South Dakota will get a special $5 million allotment to build a School of Health Sciences. The building will allow the university to expand its medical programs.
Representatives from the Board of Regents told lawmakers the $5 million will allow them to get another $4.5 million in matching funds from a donor.
The School of Mines and Black Hill State University will also be renovating and expanding their libraries. The money will mostly come from a fund held by the universities for repairing and expanding facilities.
COUNTY ROADS AND BRIDGES
The Legislature used an unexpected excess of about $4 million to repair county and township roads.
After flooding hit many parts of the state last spring, many rural roads are still in disrepair. The Legislature sent the money as a way to help rural communities recover.
Noem got most of what she asked the Legislature for this year for one-time spending items, including $3.7 million for addiction treatment and law enforcement targeted at meth, $4 million for corrections facilities, and $5 million for grants to expand broadband access to rural areas of the state.
The statewide expansion of a crisis hotline will get funding at about $400,000 a year; lawmakers will put about $1 million towards a college scholarship fund for people studying to be teachers in South Dakota; and people who provide care at senior centers and special needs programs funded by government dollars will get over $2 million on one-time bonuses.