Pierre Wrap-up: GOP Tension on federal funds, AG impeachment
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers finished the bulk of their legislative session this week, with Gov. Kristi Noem and House Republicans locked in a power struggle over the spending of federal funds as well as an impeachment investigation into the state’s attorney general.
Republicans rule the Capitol but were clearly not on the same page this year. Several of their proposals became casualties of the fight, but lawmakers still got some done — including deciding how to spend a massive influx of federal funds, some tweaks to the state’s new medical marijuana laws and weighing in on several high-profile social issues.
Here are the things to know about the session and what lawmakers are turning to next:
FEDERAL FUNDING FIGHT
Lawmakers decided how to spend nearly $1 billion in federal funds for pandemic recovery, as well as over $200 million in state funds for university projects and infrastructure around housing developments. Top lawmakers said the money would unleash transformational projects that will impact the state for decades.
Senate Republican leader Gary Cammack pointed to the largest federal funding project — $600 million for water infrastructure projects — and said it allowed the state to spur the development of projects that would have taken decades to fund. One of the largest is expected to be a pipeline to bring Missouri River water to the Black Hills.
“This is an opportunity to bring all of those systems back up to where they should be,” Cammack said.
While the water access funding passed with little controversy, other spending packages turned into bitter fights, especially between House Republicans and the governor.
A conservative group of House Republicans resistant to government spending has grappled with Noem for control over state funds. In the waning days of the session, it won a concession from the Senate, despite the governor’s public opposition. In a compromise that cleared the way for the budget to pass, both the House and Senate passed a bipartisan bill that requires a legislative budgeting committee to approve state government spending of federal funds if it requires a policy change.
The bill passed with over two-thirds support in both chambers, but Noem’s office has not indicated whether she will veto it.
The state’s pot laws were the subject of hours of debate and dozens of bills. Most failed.
Republicans were divided in their approach to pot. Some argued they should look to legalize to honor the will of voters who passed laws on medical and recreational pot in 2020. Others argued legalization would open the door to social ills and that the state government should push back on the voter-passed law.
In the end few major changes were made to the existing law.
The most significant changes the Legislature passed were to allow physician assistants and advanced nurse practitioners to recommend medical marijuana to patients, as well as placing a four-cap limit on the number cannabis plants that patients can grow in their homes.
A bill to legalize recreational pot narrowly cleared the Senate, but failed in the House.
However, the bill’s failure means that marijuana legalization advocates will focus on a campaign to pass a legalization law on the November ballot.
Republican lawmakers and the governor brought a handful of bills striking on social issues ranging from abortion to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and how race is taught in classrooms. They met limited success.
The governor’s proposal to ban transgender girls and college-age women from playing in sports leagues that match their gender identity drew strong condemnations from advocates for transgender people as state-sponsored bullying. But Noem cast it as “protecting fairness in women’s sports” and made it one of the first bills she signed this year.
She had more difficulty convincing the Republican-controlled Legislature to back several other parts of her social agenda. Lawmakers rejected bills aimed at keeping so-called “critical race theory” from K-12 classrooms, requiring time for prayer in schools and banning nearly all abortions through a law that mimicked Texas’ private enforcement.
However, Noem did find some agreement with Republicans on bills aimed at making it more difficult to obtain abortion pills and preventing public universities from holding trainings that compel students to feel “discomfort” on account of their race.
The session is nearly over for legislators, but the fight between Noem and some House Republicans is not going away soon.
Several bills appear to be on Noem’s radar for a veto, and lawmakers could return to Pierre on March 28 for a chance to gain the two-thirds majority necessary for a veto override.
That day, the House committee investigating Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for his conduct in a 2020 fatal car crash will also be releasing a report of its findings.
Noem wants the attorney general removed from office. But lawmakers are pushing back against Noem’s influence in the impeachment process. The committee plans to issue a cease and desist letter to her, instructing her not to release any more information on Ravnsborg.
Noem has already struck back at those plans, charging on Twitter that Republican House Speaker Spencer Gosch is “protecting” Ravnsborg.
The House will meet on April 14 to consider impeaching Ravnsborg.