The 2024 Legislative Session just recently wrapped up. South Dakota Democratic Party Communications Director Krista Burns spent the entire session in Pierre, sitting in on committee hearings, listening to the House and Senate floors and talking with lawmakers and lobbyists about some of the biggest issues dominating the session.

Let’s start off with the positives. Democrats had several bills that were signed into law, including two from Rep. Linda Duba. One creates a psychology licensure compact. This allows psychologists and psychiatrists to work with patients in other states. There is a behavioral health provider shortage across the country and right here in South Dakota. This law opens up the doors for more psychologists and psychiatrists to work with patients who are struggling with their mental health.

Another bill from Rep. Duba will control the feral cat population. There were some jokes made in the House and Senate, including a few cat puns from Rep. Duba, but the feral cat population is getting out of control. According to Catster, there are 60 to 100 million stray cats in the US. These cats kill billions of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians each year. Rep. Duba’s bill will allow people to bring in feral cats to get them spayed or neutered before releasing them.

Minority Leader Rep. Oren Lesmeister also had a bill signed into law that updates South Dakota’s rules for industrial hemp. The USDA recently released its final regulations for hemp. Rep. Lesmeister crafted a bill to make sure South Dakota’s laws meet those standards. If you’ve ever met Rep. Lesmeister, you know how passionate he is about hemp and the future it holds for South Dakota’s agriculture industry.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Red Dawn Foster was also signed into law. It sets up the Indian Child Welfare Council. This is in response to the US Supreme Court upholding the Indian Child Welfare Act, which provides guidance when handling cases of child abuse and neglect and adoption involving Native children. This was a bipartisan effort to make sure Native children in South Dakota stay with their tribes and grow up around their culture.

There are a few bills still waiting for the Governor’s signature. One comes from Rep. Kadyn Wittman, requiring a person convicted of vehicular manslaughter to pay restitution to the victim’s children until they are 18. There are also two pieces of legislation from Rep. Wittman and Minority Whip Sen. Liz Larson that will help those who are experiencing homelessness. Right now, many charities are paying for people to get their birth certificates and a state ID. For someone who isn’t staying at a homeless shelter, there’s no way they can afford to pay for them. But now, these bills will mean people who are experiencing homelessness can get both for free. This will open up the doors for more job and housing opportunities and help people get back on their feet.

Those were some of the big wins from this past session. But there some big losses as well, not just for Democrats, but for South Dakota as a whole.

The first has to do with our elections. Republicans kept attacking our right to vote, trying to make it harder for everyone’s voice to be heard. This includes a bill by Rep. Jon Hansen to make it harder to get initiated measures on the ballot. His proposal will allow people to remove their names from a ballot petition. Florida had a similar law more than a decade ago, but the state Supreme Court said the signature revocation law was unconstitutional. Rep. Duba warned that if South Dakota passes this legislation, we could face the same kinds of lawsuits. Voters have been using the initiative ballot measure for decades to make sure the issues that are important to them are actually voted on. This process allows the people to have a direct voice in democracy, a voice that the Republicans are trying to silence. Sen. Lee Schoenbeck said quote “I wish people wouldn’t sign those things.” Sen. John Wiik also said quote “This is the point we need to learn: Direct democracy doesn’t work”.

To show that distrust of the voters, Republicans want to put a work requirement on Medicaid expansion. The voters already decided to approve Medicaid expansion the way it is. Now, the GOP are telling voters they got it wrong the first time and that there should be a work requirement. Not only is this a slap in the face to voters, this will also mean some of the most vulnerable South Dakotans will be kicked off their health insurance. Republicans say they are worried people will live off of Medicaid, but the Department of Social Services said there are already people who are getting off the program just 6 months into the expansion. The Biden Administration found that work requirements just cause more government red tape, which leads to people losing their health insurance. Research has also shown that Medicaid work requirements don’t actually grow our workforce, because a vast majority of people on Medicaid are already working.

Another way the GOP tried to attack our elections was when they hijacked one of Minority Leader Sen. Reynold Nesiba’s bills. His original proposal would have required the state elections board to meet once a year to go over South Dakota’s election laws. Instead, Republicans rewrote most of the bill to change the voter registration deadline from the current 15 days to 30 days. During the Senate hearing, several county auditors spoke in opposition to the change, saying there is nothing wrong with the current 15 days. Thankfully, the bill was killed on the House floor, but it could have made it harder for people to register to vote.

Another issue that we’ve seen in previous years is legislation to ban drag shows. Rep. Chris Karr once again brought a bill to ban obscene live conduct on college campuses. He kept saying that this isn’t meant to ban drag shows, but these bills that he has proposed multiple times stemmed from a drag show at SDSU in 2022. A huge line of people testified against this bill, including drag queen Dixy Divine, who made history as the first person to testify in drag. The ACLU spoke in opposition, saying there are already rules in place by the Board of Regents against obscene conduct and that this bill takes it a step too far. The South Dakota Student Federation also spoke in opposition. This group can only take a stance on something if they have unanimous support. This bill will infringe on people’s freedom of expression on college campuses.

Gender-affirming care for trans youth was also up for discussion during the legislature. Sen. Nesiba wanted to give parents back their rights to decide if their transgender child can receive these lifesaving treatments. Several parents and transgender South Dakotans spoke in favor of this bill and how important this care is to their health. Unfortunately, Republicans continue to listen to false information about gender-affirming care and voted against it.

Sen. Nesiba also tried to change South Dakota’s abortion laws to allow doctors to use their professional knowledge to determine if the health of the mother is in danger. While the bill failed, it did provide for an honest and robust discussion about our state’s abortion ban, the danger it’s creating for pregnant people and the fear and confusion for doctors.

Towards the beginning of the session, Rep. Wittman proposed a bill that seemed like a no brainer. Her legislation would have ended child marriage, saying the legal age to marry is 18. Right now, a 16-year-old can get married with their parent’s permission. According to the South Dakota Department of Health, 838 minors got married in the state between 2000 and 2020. 81% of those marriages were young girls who wed adult men. Instead of seeing this as a problem, several Republicans talked about why child marriage is “good”. They cited pregnancy, maintaining a nuclear family and increasing the state’s population for why child marriage should continue.

Republicans also killed two bills to feed our children. Rep. Wittman asked for just $578,000 to help school districts across the state expand free meals to students in need. Rep. Duba also wanted the state apply for the summer EBT program to make sure low-income families can buy food when school is out. This also would have cost the state very little money. Instead, Republicans decided to increase a veiled private school voucher program to $5 million.

The GOP also decided to ignore victims of sexual assault. Rep. Wittman wanted to create a clear path in the court system for victims of stealthing, which is a slang term for non-consensual condom removal. The bill originally passed committee because of testimony from a woman who became pregnant because of stealthing. But when the proposal got to the House floor, Republicans enacted a rarely used rule that eliminates any discussion. The GOP then voted on party lines to kill the bill. Everyone was in shock at the disrespect not just towards Rep. Wittman, but also to victims of sexual assault. Rep. Wittman did receive several apologies from Republicans, but that doesn’t excuse what happened.

You may also remember the sudden address by Governor Kristi Noem on the House floor about the US/Mexico border. During her speech, she said the cartels were operating on our reservations. Minority Whip Rep. Peri Pourier called her out on those statements, saying she shouldn’t be using the public safety issues on the reservations for her own political gain. Governor Noem and Rep. Pourier met the next morning to discuss why those remarks were hurtful and how to move forward. The issue returned a few weeks later when the Rosebud Sioux Tribe asked for its flag to be removed from the state capitol due to the Governor’s remarks.

The big topics that dominated the session and led to packed committee rooms were CO2 pipelines and landowner rights. It’s a debate that has divided families, neighbors, communities, agricultural groups and lawmakers. It’s not even an issue divided along party lines; Republicans disagreed with Republicans and Democrats disagreed with Democrats. Much of the debate came to a head over SB 201. People who supported the legislation say it will provide more protections for landowners, create consistency for pipeline laws, and provide revenue for counties. Opponents say the bill doesn’t actually fix any problems and takes away local control from counties. Representatives spent two hours on the House floor voicing their opinions. Rep. Eric Emery and Rep. Pourier stood in opposition to the bill, saying they want to protect the land and that the land has already been stolen from the Oceti Sakowin. Rep. Lesmeister spoke in support of the bill, while also acknowledging the enormity of the vote and that no legislator took their decision lightly.

During the last few weeks, we saw Republicans attacking your freedoms and brush off legislation that would have truly helped South Dakotans. We need more Democrats in the House and Senate who truly listen to their constituents and bring bills that will boost our state instead of keeping down the most vulnerable. Democrats prioritize legislation that make your day to day lives easier, whether that’s being able to put a nutritious meal on the table, protecting hard working South Dakotans, making sure you have access to healthcare, celebrating all genders, sexual orientations, religions, cultures, races and ethnicities, respecting tribal sovereignty, giving our children the best education and safe guarding your freedoms – that is what the Democrat Party stands for and what we will keep fighting for year after year.

For questions, you can contact the SDDP Executive Director Dan Ahlers at or contact the state party office by phone at 605-271-5405 or 605-940-3071.

Paid for by the South Dakota Democratic Party |