Democratic Leaders Column from Rep. Jamie Smith and Sen. Troy Heinert– Week 8

PIERRE, SD (March 5, 2021) – Greetings from Pierre! The eighth week of the legislative session ended Thursday with Democrats in Pierre working on finding common sense solutions for the people of South Dakota. We have been pleased to see cooperation on some of the bills that have made their way through the legislative process. We have also been disappointed to see the assaults on some of our most vulnerable citizens and some of our most cherished values as South Dakotans.

One issue Democrats have worked on for years in Pierre is a need-based scholarship fund. This week, the House passed SB 171 to provide for the South Dakota Freedom Scholarship. It provides $50 million to an endowment at the South Dakota Community Foundation, that, along with $150 million from private sources, will total $200 million. This fund will provide a permanent endowment for a need-based scholarship program that will include all public, private, and tribal colleges. This is an example of a public-private effort to improve the future of thousands of students and enhance the future of our state.

“Providing low-income students with the opportunity to attend public, tribal, or private non-profit colleges or universities has been a goal of Democrats for a long time. We’re thrilled to see this finally move forward with Republican support,” says House Minority Leader, Jamie Smith. “We hope to see this bill as well as the bill to expand broadband in our state stay whole. We’re looking forward to the Governor signing them into law.”

However, the differences between Democrats and Republicans in Pierre have never been more apparent than this past week.  There were a number of bills that failed in their respective committees getting “smoked-out” on the Senate floor. We have also seen an unprecedented Republican assault on the initiated measure process. South Dakota was the first state to adopt the initiative and referendum on a statewide level in part to ensure that we live up to our state motto: “Under God the people rule.”

One bill attacking the measure to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot is HJR 5003. It proposes and submits to the voters at the next primary election a new section to Article XI of the Constitution of the State of South Dakota. It would require a three-fifths vote requirement—a 60% threshold—for certain initiated or Legislature-proposed constitutional amendments and initiated or Legislature-referred measures. The original bill placed this measure on the November 8, 2022 ballot. The amended version places it on the June ballot when far more Republicans vote in primary elections.

“To be clear, this is a systemic assault on the will of the people,” says Senate Minority Leader, Troy Heinert. “The bill to require a 60% threshold for ballot initiatives is undemocratic. You win with 50% plus one. Moving the 60% question to the June 2022 primary would be unfair to the several hundred-thousands of voters who normally only vote in general elections. We are cutting our people off at the knees. This is bad legislation and Democrats urge our legislature to stop the movement of this.”

If voters back the 60% threshold, another vote, like the one on recreational marijuana voters approved with 54% support and that is being challenged by the governor, probably wouldn’t succeed.

“With regard to Amendment A, there has been testimony here that claims voters didn’t read the bill,” says Smith. “I’m insulted that our voters’ intelligence is being questioned. The people knew what they were voting on, and we’ve gotten hundreds of emails in favor of it. The opposition has all come from the governor’s office and our Republican colleagues.”

“We do balance our budget in South Dakota,” says Heinert. “The majority of people support things like Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana. Our governor hasn’t implemented these efforts and people shouldn’t have their only means to make them happen taken away.”

This week we saw bills that died in committee get new life on the senate floor. According to legislative rules, a bill can be “smoked out” with only one-third of the Senate in support and must be heard at the next legislative day. This will be Monday, March 7. These include HB 1217, restricting transgender girls from competing in sanctioned sports, and HB 1212, clarifying the use of force otherwise known as a “stand your ground” law, and HB 1140 undermining the “open fields doctrine” making it harder for game wardens to stop the poaching of game.

“We trust the committee process, and these bills received fair and thorough hearings in their respective committees where they were defeated,” says Heinert. “Not only are they bad for South Dakota, but they are also poorly written, and we shouldn’t be wasting the senate’s time on them.”

Bills that should have received more time and attention, but didn’t, include SB 57, revising the state employee health insurance plan that passed the House before the Joint Committee on Appropriations could complete a full hearing on it. When Senator Reynold Nesiba pressed Human Resources Commissioner Darin Steely on where the money is coming from, the commissioner said $8 million of the $12 million in savings is really being generated from higher premiums being charged to employees.” The bill will be signed into law. Many state employees feel as though their concerns went unheard and that their premiums are likely to increase by far more than their paychecks. Many will go backwards.

On Thursday, Heinert filed SDR 901, a resolution of disapproval to block the governor’s proposed merger of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA). “Agriculture is too important in South Dakota and deserves a state department whose resources and expertise are devoted to the promotion of the agricultural industry,” he says. “I was happy this bill passed out of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources committee and will be heard on the Senate floor. We should pass it and stop the merger.”

Other good things Democrats have had success with include HB 1189 to establish a tribal flag display in the Capitol rotunda that passed on the senate floor with a majority vote, and HB 1199 to establish the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons that passed unanimously out of Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats in Pierre continue to fight for progress in enhancing our state’s inclusivity and helping the most vulnerable. However, our representation in Pierre does not reflect the political make-up of our state. This session has made it clear that we have a lot of work to do to elect more Democrats to the state legislature in 2022.

For instance, in Senate State Affairs this week there was an attempt to remove Democrats from areas like the Board of Regents, Game Fish and Parks, and State Tribal Relations where the Republicans can pick the chair and the vice chair who would have no connection to any tribe.

“What we’ve seen in Pierre this year is an assault on the minority party,” says Heinert. “While we’ve been able to stop a lot of these bills from moving forward, it’s like an eagle who can’t fly with one wing significantly bigger than the other. It’s bad for South Dakota. We can do better.”

We want to hear from you! Please contact us to share your questions or concerns. Our caucus meetings are open to the public the hour before floor session. Your voice matters, and we believe that together, we can create a South Dakota that works for all of us.

Representative Jamie Smith,
Senator Troy Heinert,