South Dakota lawmakers set to dive into county funding, nursing home closures over summer session

Summer studies allow a group of lawmakers to gain context on important topics and bring in different sets of expertise. This year, they'll focus on nursing home sustainability and county issues.

The two top lawmakers in the South Dakota Legislature — House Speaker Hugh Bartels, of Watertown, left, and Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown — lead an Executive Board meeting to identify summer study topics on March 27, 2023.

PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota’s counties and long-term care services are coming under the legislative microscope this summer.

The decision to set these two topics as the study cases this summer — an annual tradition that allows a group of lawmakers to study important topics and bring in different sets of expertise — came from the South Dakota Legislature’s Executive Board, a committee of 17 lawmakers, many of them in leadership positions in the House and Senate.

On county funding, the question in front of lawmakers will likely have multiple parts: how the state and county governments can partner in delivering certain services; whether regionalization or consolidation in some form can make counties more efficient; and how the county funding model can potentially be changed to keep up with costs.

Several attempts to address the issue during this past session — including regionalization mechanisms for spreading out jail costs and a half-cent gross receipts tax tied to certain expensive construction projects — failed due to a general aversion toward increasing taxpayer burdens.

"Counties have burdens with no real means of revenue," Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke explained.

“There are just a lot of areas that we need to look at and help them as it relates to policies concerning maybe regionalization or consolidation or some other alternative way of providing counties funding,” Rep. Mike Stevens, of Yankton, said during the March 27 meeting.


Lawmakers are already set to study the issue of legal services for those unable to afford representation through a task force in the interim session, one of several services counties are expected to provide.

Rep. Roger Chase, of Huron, and Sen. Randy Deibert, of Spearfish, who serves as a county commissioner in Lawrence County, were tapped to lead the county study.

The venture into long-term care, on the other hand, is an attempt to stem the tide of nursing home closures in the state, especially as South Dakota’s population begins to age.

Though the decision to fund nursing homes and some other providers in the state at 100% of the cost of Medicaid services should help keep these providers afloat for at least the next year, the study is set to look at “access, innovation and sustainability… delivering recommendations with actionable solutions to meet individuals' needs” in long-term care.

In 2022, seven nursing homes in the state closed their doors, citing high staffing costs and low reimbursement rates.

In her Dec. 6 budget address, Gov. Kristi Noem announced a plan to significantly increase funding to nursing homes. But can this change reel in skyrocketing labor costs driven by staffing shortages?

Republican lawmakers throughout session indicated that simply throwing money at the issue may not be a sustainable solution without some sort of change to the nursing home model.

“The study will further identify alternate or additional care delivery models,” said Sen. Jim Bolin, of Canton. “That includes models that emphasize long-term care in the home; regionalization of long term care facilities; or affordable care for long-term patients in the state of South Dakota.”

The long-term care deep dive will be chaired by Sen. Jean Hunhoff, of Yankton, and Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, of Sioux Falls.


In the coming month, the Executive Board will reconvene to finalize the language outlining the exact scope of the two expansive summer studies.

As Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck told Forum News Service in February, the most effective summer studies combine issues that are sure to come up in the following legislative session with a narrow focus that allows lawmakers to propose quality solutions.

“Don't make world peace,” Schoenbeck said to illustrate the point. “These world peace summer studies, that's just wasting everybody's time and money and legislators get frustrated.”

Schoenbeck, who serves as the vice chair of the Executive Board, made similar points in the vein of the discussion over a county funding summer study, which will have to strike a delicate balance between seemingly ever-increasing tax burdens and the solvency of mandatory county services.

“It’s going to take a wealth of knowledge and relationships, plus a magician, to make everybody happy on this subject,” he said.

The board considered around two dozen unique proposals for topics that could lend themselves to a summer study.

Other topics included in the wide-ranging set of proposed summer studies included nuclear power, child care and a potential alternative to traditional education for students with truancy or behavioral issues.

Child care, in particular, had somewhat broad backing as a serious need and potential summer study topic throughout the session but was not officially selected.


Still, House Majority Leader Will Mortenson explained that a lack of a sanctioned summer study does not prevent lawmakers from bringing in different perspectives and thinking about solutions before they arrive in Pierre next January.

“I think that we have identified the two very most front-of-mind topics for our members,” Mortenson said. “I think that they are substantive, and they are due for multiple meetings. That will keep our [legislative] staff available to help in more ad hoc efforts to pursue progress in some of these other areas.”

“We have to think about what our priorities are, especially considering the threats we face around the world,” South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds 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

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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