PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's lawmakers have gone home for the year, with a bigger spending spree in the rearview mirror than ever before.
A $50 million "generational" investment in needs-based scholarships, $100 million in statewide broadband grants meant to connect both rural, hard-to-reach areas, an upgrade of a railway west from the Missouri River to the Black Hills, a 2.4% raise for state employees, and even $5 million for a new airplane requested by Gov. Kristi Noem.
On Thursday, March 11, moments after Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden pounded the gavel on a unanimous vote in the state Senate and led the chamber in self-congratulatory applause, Senate Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, stood to call it a historic session.
"If you took all of the one-time monies from statehood to present," Schoenbeck said, "I suspect this appropriations committee dealt with as much much one-time money in 60 days than the entire state legislatures had to do since statehood."
South Dakota, historically one of the must frugal states in the nation with a relatively svelte budget of just over $5 billion, went on a buying — or "investment" — campaign over the last two months in the statehouse in large part thanks to Washington, D.C.'s two big stimulus laws ironed out between former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Thanks to other private investments in large windfarms, which gave the state some unexpected revenue, South Dakota and its ruby-red Legislature was positioned this year to act a lot more like a big-spending liberal state.
At a Thursday morning news conference, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith, one of only eight Democrats in the 70-member body, noted the state was able to greenlight longtime Democratic priorities such as broadband expansion and scholarship for low-income South Dakotans.
"We did a lot of great things fore the state of South Dakota," said Smith, of Sioux Falls. "These are things that the Democratic Party has been working on, frankly, for years, and we finally had the opportunity to do those things because the money is there."
And there could be more of it to come. With President Joe Biden's signing of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus, as well as conservative revenue estimates set by state appropriators, South Dakota may have more one-time money next legislative cycle, too.
The South Dakota Legislature was one of the few nationwide to meet in person amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Midway through the session nearly a dozen legislators and lobbyists tested positive for the virus. Lawmakers, however, managed to pass major priorities of Noem's, including a new rodeo and livestock complex at the state fairgrounds in Huron, a dairy research center at South Dakota State University and a National Guard readiness center.
But the Legislature failed — or perhaps succeeded — in one of the highest-profile challenges of the session: to stand-up a medicinal marijuana program voted on by 70% of the state's voters in an initiated measure last November. In the session's final days, a bid for a compromised plan failed, and the program will go in place as a majority of voters requested, without a delay on July 1.
While the Department of Health expected to issue qualifying patient cards by year's end, questions still remain on the program's timetable and taxing regime, say lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, R-Union Center, also echoed Noem in lamenting "unintended consequences" in Initiated Measure 26's text, including the possibility of qualifying minors to not just ingest, but smoke marijuana as prescribed.
"Stay tuned," Cammack said at a news conference. Pressed as to whether lawmakers of the governor would call for a special session, he said, "All of this is up in the air."
Noem, earlier on Thursday, bemoaned the quick timetable required by IM 26, saying she was afraid the state would end up rolling out its program akin to "Oklahoma, and it's a mess."
In 2020, Oklahoma's medical marijuana program brought in $120 million for the state.
Some drama, nevertheless, remains on other issues. The state's controversial ban on transgender athletes playing girls sports and a liaison officer for missing and murdered Indigenous persons at the attorney general's office are awaiting signatures from the governor. At month's end, lawmakers may return to Pierre to consider any veto overrides.
But the feeling of accomplishment ran through both chambers on Thursday, as the sun shone a day after a big snow dumping and — rather than waiting until close to midnight — lawmakers were able to say sine die and go home early after having made big, if not historic, purchases.