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South Dakota lawmakers split over special session for relief

August 12, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this June 22, 2020 file photo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at the Sioux Falls city hall in Sioux Falls, S.D. As the state looks to use $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, one of the largest expenditures has been for law enforcement. The funds came with the stipulation that they be used in addressing the pandemic and anything unused would be returned at the end of the year. Gov. Noem's administration opted to use the money to pay salaries for law enforcement officers.(AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)
FILE - In this June 22, 2020 file photo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at the Sioux Falls city hall in Sioux Falls, S.D. As the state looks to use $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, one of the largest expenditures has been for law enforcement. The funds came with the stipulation that they be used in addressing the pandemic and anything unused would be returned at the end of the year. Gov. Noem's administration opted to use the money to pay salaries for law enforcement officers.(AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)
FILE - In this June 22, 2020 file photo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at the Sioux Falls city hall in Sioux Falls, S.D. As the state looks to use $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, one of the largest expenditures has been for law enforcement. The funds came with the stipulation that they be used in addressing the pandemic and anything unused would be returned at the end of the year. Gov. Noem's administration opted to use the money to pay salaries for law enforcement officers.(AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — With the deadline to allocate federal coronavirus relief funds approaching at the end of the year, South Dakota legislators are split on whether to call a special session to determine how the funds should be used.

Senate Republicans are willing to wait to see if federal negotiations in Congress are rekindled to bring an extension to the deadline. They would rather wait until the Legislature meets in January to determine how the funds are used. But lawmakers spearheaded by House Speaker Steve Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, are asking Gov. Kristi Noem to call a special session to determine how much of the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds are spent.

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The state spent about $75 million of the federal relief it received to address the coronavirus crisis during the fiscal year that ended on June 30. As lawmakers considered how to spend much of the rest, Noem communicated to them at the end of July that she would rather avoid a special session in the fall. But that was dependent on Congress passing an extension to the Dec. 31 deadline to use the money.

With talks between Republicans and Democrats stalled in Congress, Haugaard gathered the signatures of 45 lawmakers calling for a special session. To reconvene, the Legislature either needs the support of two-thirds of both the House and Senate or to be called into session by the governor.

Haugaard said he had not yet heard back from Noem’s office on a special session, but said there is “increasing momentum for that, certainly among the House members.”

He is also assembling listening sessions to hear from the public on how the money might be put to best use. Haugaard pointed out that businesses and individuals may be struggling in the coming months from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

But senators are unlikely to support a special session at this time, said Assistant Majority Leader Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican. They would rather take the time to make sure the money is put to best use.

The governor’s office appears confident that Congress will come together to pass another coronavirus relief package.

“We still have plenty of time,” Noem’s spokeswoman Maggie Seidel said, claiming that the “vast majority” of lawmakers don’t want a special session.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty makes it difficult to determine who needs financial help and how to get the money to them, said Minority Leader Jamie Smith, a Democrat from Sioux Falls.

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“The rules keep changing on how we can spend that money,” he said, giving the example of how schools don’t know how much further federal funding they will receive.

The effect of President Donald Trump’s order to extend federal unemployment benefits by $400 a week also remains unclear. The Department of Labor and Regulation is waiting for guidance from the federal government before sharing what it means for South Dakotans. Lawmakers felt that they would have to approve the $100 a week that Trump is asking states to contribute to the plan, though it could likely be paid out of the federal relief money the state has already received.

Meanwhile, the state recorded one more death from COVID-19 along with 102 new cases. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 23, an increase of 34%.

A woman in her 60s died in Lyman County, according to data from the Department of Health. Over the course of the pandemic, 9,815 have tested positive for the coronavirus. About 88% of them have recovered, while 147 have died and 1,062 have active infections.