State legislators gear up for session

Jason Ferguson
By Jason Ferguson
What will the 2020 South Dakota Legislative Session look like when it begins next Tuesday?
That depends on who you ask.
District 30 Sen. Lance Russell sees it as possibly contentious, as the agricultural sector of the economy is struggling with low cattle prices and an exponential increase in property taxes.
District 30 Rep. Tim Goodwin, however, said he is optimistic as he enters his fourth year as a representative, as he is impressed with the quality of all of the members of the House of Representatives on both sides of the aisle.
As for fellow District 30 Rep. Julie Frye-Mueller, she hopes it’s not as frustrating as last year.
“Some of us are bringing back good bills that were killed last session and will try to get them passed this session,” she said.
Gov. Kristi Noem proposed a $4.94 billion state budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The state is estimated to bring in $1.7 billion in tax revenue in 2021, about a $28.1 million increase from the 2020 fiscal year, despite the state losing $20 million in revenue when it ends its internet access tax next year.
Noem isn’t proposing any discretionary inflation increases for education, Medicaid providers and state employees. The lack of the proposed 3 percent increase (or Consumer Price Index, whichever is less) has caught the attention of all three District 30 legislators.
“I think it was very conservative. We do, however, have to go by statutes regarding (education increase),” Goodwin said.
Russell said he will not vote for a budget that does not include the statutory required increase for education, while Frye-Mueller said she wouldn’t support a budget that “continues to grow and citizens can’t afford,” while pointing out the last state budget increased spending over $170 million and added 111 new full-time employees to the state payroll.
Both Goodwin and Frye-Mueller questioned whether money will be as tight as Noem has indicated, with Goodwin saying the last couple of years the state ended with an $18 million surplus and the state is already halfway into its fiscal year as far as revenue is concerned (July 1 through June 30) when the session begins.
Frye-Mueller said there was extra revenue the last three sessions that the state wouldn’t give back to the taxpayers.
“We had to spend it and were given three choices,” she said. “None of the choices were ‘return to sender.’”
Industrial hemp figures to be one of the hot-button topics this session, an issue on which District 30 legislators are split. Both Goodwin and Frye-Mueller support allowing farmers to grow hemp in the state, while Russell is against it.
Goodwin was on the task force that met throughout the summer and into December to discuss hemp. The legislative Hemp Study Committee is building off the failed 2019 bill that would have legalized hemp, although Noem has already said she plans to veto the hemp bill again in 2020 because law enforcement can’t tell the difference between marijuana and hemp. She vetoed a bill that would have legalized hemp a year ago.
Goodwin said the bill to legalize industrial hemp is already crafted and ready to file.
“I’m optimistic the governor won’t veto it and it will become law,” he said.
Goodwin said the bill will have an emergency clause, meaning a two-thirds vote of each chamber will be required. The emergency clause allows the bill to become law immediately after it passes rather than wait until the new year. This, Goodwin said, would allow farmers to plant hemp this spring. He said, in a worst-case scenario, the issue could be referred to the ballot box in November if Noem were to veto the bill and the votes were not available to override the veto.
Russell said there may not be a lot of farmers clamoring to plant hemp, as not a single farmer who attended a field hearing in November stated a desire to.
“As a former state’s attorney, I know that legalization will cause real problems for enforcement of the drug laws,” he said. “That’s why I will likely vote to uphold the governor’s veto.”
Frye-Mueller said if a farmer wants to grow hemp, they should have that option.
“If other crops aren’t producing, they need to have income to provide for their families,” she said.
Property taxes could also be a large issue, particularly the way agricultural land is valued. Russell said he plans to introduce Noem’s 2009 actual use property taxation legislation. Ag land is currently taxed on what it potentially could grow as opposed to what it is actually used for. The results, many farmers and ranchers say, is wildly overvalued agricultural land.
Russell said S.D. State University professor Dr. Matthew Elliott conducted a study for the S.D. Department of Revenue concerning agricultural property taxation overvaluation.
“That study found that agricultural property taxes in western South Dakota are overvalued by billions of dollars,” Russell said.
Russell said Elliott made suggestions to fix the perceived problem, but neither the governor’s office nor the state’s Department of Revenue introduced legislation as suggested.
“This overvaluation of western South Dakota agricultural property reduces the amount of state aid our school districts receive from Pierre, sending the money to Rapid City and eastern South Dakota schools,” Russell said.
Russell encourages the public to contact the governor’s office and ask that she support the actual use legislation she introduced in 2009 to “make sure our children have the same opportunities.”
“I frequently talk with ranchers who are fed up and can’t afford what they are assessed,” Frye-Mueller said. “It shouldn’t be on the ranchers and farmers to fund a greedy government.”
On the justice reform front, Frye-Mueller said she is hopeful some progress can be made by reversing bills that have caused problems, while Goodwin said there is a lot of talk about presumptive probation and tweaking that system, while also avoiding simply locking up people who are addicts. 
To that end, Goodwin said legislation has been proposed that if someone arrested on drug charges immediately volunteers for treatment, a felony charge is reduced upon successful completion of rehab and staying clean for a certain period of time.
Russell said ttorney general Jason Ravnsborg attempted to fix some of the crime issues last year, but the governor killed the legislation. Russell said Ravnsborg’s proposed legislation for the upcoming session is much less comprehensive than what was proposed last year. However, Russell said, Ravnsborg does not have a legislative fix for juvenile justice reform in this session’s proposed bills.
“It is my belief he did not introduce juvenile justice reforms in an effort to avoid the governor’s veto,” he said. “It is my belief that any meaningful juvenile justice reform, including STAR Academy, will be very hard to achieve without the governor’s support.”
Goodwin said he would at least like to stop the state from selling STAR Academy while options for its future are evaluated.
Among the other issues the legislators said could be on this year’s agenda are vaping, parental rights and gender dysphoria, while Frye-Mueller said she will continue to fight for legislation for the unborn as well as lifetime license plates.
“It is ridiculous when I have found a way to save money and the savings goes back into the ‘roads and bridges fund’ we don’t capitalize on that opportunity,” she said. “Other states have lifetime plates and have no problems.”
All three legislators encourage the citizens of District 30 to contact them or the governor’s office if they want an issue addressed.
“If the governor’s office is not called or emailed because people feel government will not listen, then the governor assumes people don’t care enough about an issue to address the problem,” Russell said. “The call does not have to be long and involved for the message to be effective. Please reach out and participate in making our system work better for the people.”

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