SD lawmakers give raises, push state constitutional changes
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers have left the Capitol after eking out raises for thousands of teachers, state workers and Medicaid providers in the roughly $4.7 billion state budget, funding hikes that seemed unattainable when the Legislature started work in January.
Friday’s votes closed a legislative session tinged with lingering Republican frustration over ballot questions that voters approved in 2016. GOP lawmakers flexed their majorities in Pierre to mandate new rules for citizens’ initiative campaigns and to ask voters in November to make the state constitution harder to change.
But not before voters will be asked to make tweaks to the constitution in a first-ever ballot question election at the June primary. Supporters say approving the changes to the “Marsy’s Law” victims’ bill of rights in June would fix problems sooner.
Officials say it’s causing issues for law enforcement and prosecutors and spiking costs for counties. Marsy’s Law guarantees crime victims and their family members the right to privacy, protection from harassment or abuse and timely notice of trial, sentencing and post-judgment proceedings. The changes would require victims to opt into many of their rights, explicitly allow authorities to share information with the public to help solve crimes and limit the definition of a victim.
South Dakota would be the first state to alter Marsy’s Law out of the six that have enacted it. Republican House Speaker Mark Mickelson negotiated the changes, which enjoyed support from Republicans, Democrats and the Marsy’s Law campaign.
Democrats unsuccessfully pushed back against the June vote. They argued turnout will be lower for parties without primaries.
The minority party also failed at fighting off several measures that critics say will restrict people’s ability to pass their own laws or constitutional changes.
Republicans sent an amendment to the November ballot asking voters to increase the majority vote threshold required for constitutional changes to 55 percent of the votes cast. GOP Sen. Jim Bolin, the sponsor, told a Senate panel that it’s a “legitimate and desirable method of protecting our fundamental political document.”
Colorado, Florida and New Hampshire have thresholds ranging from 55 percent to two-thirds support required for voters to approve constitutional changes.
Republican lawmakers also passed a bill that would require ballot measure signature gatherers to give the secretary of state information including their driver’s license number and the length of time at their current and past two addresses. Mickelson has said it would make it easier for courts to determine whether circulators are residents.
“I think that the Republican Party has successfully made it harder to put measures on the ballot, has made it harder to pass them as constitutional amendments and will make the entire process far more litigious than it was in the past,” said Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba, who helped lead a successful 2016 initiative to cap payday loan interest rates.
Lawmakers did come together on a bill that would ease a state production limit and reduce other rules for microbreweries. Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard pushed for the brewing overhaul in his last legislative session as governor, saying state regulations are stifling the industry. The measure sent to Daugaard would create a microbrewery license allowing the businesses to produce 30,000 barrels of beer annually, up from 5,000 barrels, and let craft brewers skip distributors to sell up to 1,500 barrels of their beer each year directly to bars and stores.
The Legislature approved a new precision agriculture facility at South Dakota State University and a state veterans cemetery in Sioux Falls. The roughly $55 million SDSU project involves building a precision agriculture classroom and laboratory, with renovations to an existing building expected later. Supporters say it will provide modern research and education space for the university’s first-in-the-nation bachelor’s degree program in precision ag.
A slew of high-profile bills didn’t make it to Daugaard. Legislators voted down measures that would have ended collective bargaining at public universities, put a proposed casino complex in Yankton on the ballot and raised the age to buy tobacco to 21.
Bills that would have banned elementary and middle schools from teaching about gender identity and sought to suspend refugee resettlement into South Dakota from countries on “any federal travel ban list” also didn’t advance.
Lawmakers return March 26 to debate any vetoes that could come from the governor. But they finished the main part of the 2018 legislative session Friday after setting state spending.
The Legislature benefited from state tax collections projected to climb higher than Daugaard anticipated when he proposed a budget in December. The budget for the next fiscal year includes about $1.63 billion in general state spending, about $18 million — or 1.1 percent — above the governor’s proposal.
The final budget included increases of 1 percent for education, 1.2 percent for state employees and 2 percent for community-based providers and 0.5 percent for other providers.
Legislators, too, are set to get a raise — their first salary hike in two decades. Lawmakers sent a bill to Daugaard that would set their salaries at one-fifth of the South Dakota median household income, starting next year. Officials estimate lawmakers’ pay for 2019 would increase 97 percent to about $11,800.
House Majority Leader Lee Qualm told his colleagues Friday that they had good session.
“We have a lot of great accomplishments, and moving forward it is going to be tremendous for this state. I don’t doubt that one bit,” Qualm said. “Could we have done more? Sure, we could have always done more, but there’s always next year.”