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Grocery tax cut sits center stage at dueling Sioux Falls appearances by Kristi Noem, Jamie Smith

One day after a group of Republican lawmakers called for a Nov. 3 special session to cut the state tax on groceries, gubernatorial candidates Jamie Smith and Kristi Noem made separate appearances in Sioux Falls highlighting their support for cutting the tax.

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Gov. Kristi Noem stands behind the register at Sunshine Foods in Sioux Falls. Noem visited the grocery store to highlight rising food prices and her recent announcement supporting a cut to the state's tax on groceries.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — As Gov. Kristi Noem ended the loop she had taken around Sunshine Foods, a grocery store in downtown Sioux Falls, she settled behind the cash register in Lane 2.

While she waited for an early morning shopper to brave the checkout line and the arsenal of cameras pointed at it, one customer who had just paid in Lane 3 made a timely remark.

“I would’ve saved 50 cents if there was no grocery tax,” he said to the cashier in his lane, certainly knowing he was within earshot of the governor.

Two events on a brisk, gray morning in Sioux Falls on Oct. 12 — a press conference by Democratic candidate Jamie Smith and the stop by Noem at Sunshine Foods — brought into focus an unexpected issue that has now taken center stage in the campaign for governor less than a month before Election Day: the repeal of the state tax on groceries.

“All this time, I’ve supported repealing this unfair tax,” Smith said during his press conference at the Democratic Party’s headquarters in Sioux Falls on Wednesday morning. “All this time, until now, the governor has opposed it.”

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The focus on the grocery tax took on new life on Oct. 11, when a handful of Republican lawmakers, led by Rep. Phil Jensen (R-Rapid City), released a call for a Nov. 3 special session to take up legislation that would immediately strip the state’s share of the grocery tax. Unless the governor calls a special session, at least two-thirds of each chamber would have to vote in favor of convening.

“It would have been very difficult to do this when I was first sworn in as governor because our economy wasn't growing. We were making less money,” Noem told reporters about her decision to publicly endorse the idea. “We didn't have the kind of outlook that we have now.”

Gov. Kristi Noem poses with a customer at Sunshine Foods in Sioux Falls.
Gov. Kristi Noem poses with a customer at Sunshine Foods in Sioux Falls. Noem told a store manager that she had previously worked as a cashier at Kessler's in Aberdeen during her time at Northern State.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

For the repeal to take effect before July 2023, both chambers would have to support the measure by a two-thirds majority. Neither Noem nor Smith were convinced that the support would materialize by the proposed Nov. 3 special session, specifically in the Senate, where a House-approved proposal to repeal the tax was shot down in the final days of the legislative session earlier this year.

“If this is something that she's really committed to, I mean, she's the governor. So she can call a special session,” Michele Brace, a registered Democrat who was at the Sunshine Foods location during the Noem visit, told Forum News Service. “I feel like she has contacts she can call and bring them to the table if this is what she believes is best for South Dakota.”

While the stop by Noem to highlight rising food prices was officially part of her duties as governor and separate from the campaign, she didn’t let an opportunity to criticize her opponent go to waste.

During Noem’s impromptu press conference at the end of her visit to the grocery store, she pointed to Smith’s quote that he had “no idea” whether there would be two-thirds support for the measure in the Senate as an example of lack of leadership, saying a “leader would have known all those answers.”

While Noem was similarly unsure of whether a special session vote would be successful, she did come across as confident that she could help wrangle the votes between now and the beginning of the official session in January.

“A lot of legislators have been asking about how we're going to pay for it,” Noem said. “And that tells me they need to be more filled in on the basic economics of our economy. We have so much growth.”

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Smith, who pointed out that Noem could call the special session without the blessing of the Senate, used part of his press conference to prod Noem’s aspirations beyond South Dakota.

“With the election just around the corner, and the uncertainty of whether or not Kristi Noem will serve her full term if elected, we have no assurance that this policy will not join the long list of the governor’s unfulfilled political promises,” Smith said.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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