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A 'transformational' year: South Dakota spends big on education, broadband, and railroad from Pierre to the Black Hills

South Dakota lawmakers eye the finish line a week away, reflecting on big investments in education, broadband, and a fix to a railway from the Missouri River to the Black Hills. The state has had unprecedented one-time money to spend thanks, largely, to federal investments from Washington D.C.'s COVID-19 relief packages.

Republican leaders (from L to R) House Majority Leader Kent Peterson (R-Salem), Senate Assistant Minority Leader Michael Diedrich (R-Rapid City), and Sen. Casey Crabtree (R-Madison) in the South Dakota state house address reporters on Thursday, March 4 for the weekly press conference. (with permission Abby Wargo / Rapid City Journal)
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PIERRE, S.D. — The year of the big-spender in the South Dakota legislature is coming to a close -- with most, if not all, of the big priorities, from a new beef barn to a statewide broadband grant program funded and headed to the governor's desk.

Senate Pro Tempore Leader Lee Schoenbeck stood in the chamber and waxed nostalgically about sitting in a nursing home in two decades and reflecting on the investments made during a historic legislative session.

"No other Legislature is going to get a chance to do as many big things as we get to do that are going to benefit our state for a long time," said Schoenbeck , a Watertown Republican.

Moments before, on the House side, the chamber passed a $50 million spend on needs-based college scholarships, the first ever in state history. The Senate had just approved spending $75 million on a statewide broadband grant program to expand internet connectivity to rural and underserved communities. And the Senate was about to vote unanimously to spend $20 million on a massive railroad rehabilitation project, enhancing the line west from Ft. Pierre to Rapid City.

"This is the third of the three huge transformational things we'll do," said Schoenbeck.


The South Dakota Legislature, normally a thrifty congregation where state law requires balancing the budget and, in normal years, a $80 million boost for road and bridge funding may be accompanied by a 6-cents-a-gallon sales tax increase that induces soul-searching for the conservative body , has been endowed this last year through wind farm revenue and federal government bailout for COVID-19 relief projects with money to invest.

Assistant House Majority Leader Chris Johnson , R-Rapid City, fumbled with the novel phraseology of spending bills at a press conference on Thursday, March 4, saying, "We had these unprecedented one-time dollars (and) we needed to figure out how to budget those."

But the bills -- ranging from bison center to biofuels institute to a new academic buildings on the state's campuses -- have largely passed across ideological factions within the vast Republican supermajority in both houses and the sliver of Democrats.

On Thursday, at a Democratic press conference, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith , D-Sioux Falls, said he felt deeply satisfied seeing the needs-based scholarship program, called the "Freedom Scholarship," pass the House with fewer than 20 detractors.

"It's been a priority for us for years," said Smith. "To see that finally come to fruition, it's exciting to use and shows if you work long enough and hard can happen."

The measure, boosted earlier this year by a $50 million donation from Sioux Falls philanthropist T. Denny Sanford , will go toward income eligible South Dakotans who maintain a 2.5 GPA, attend an eligible institution -- any public or non-profit private school, including tribal college in the state -- and agrees to "live and work" in South Dakota for three years after graduation.

The broadband initiative, as well, enjoyed wide partisan support passing out of the Senate yesterday, even though its sponsoring legislation is a single page long. The only person to stand and waive a caution flag was Sen. Herman Otten , R-Lennox, who noted the bill's funds, which are scheduled to be spent by June 2026, shouldn't neglect the exurban areas.

"We have people who live a half-mile outside our largest communities that don't have reliable broadband," said Otten. "I'm going to support this bill because it is a great thing, but I sure hope that we don't push all that off to years four and five."


The railway rehabilitation bill , as well, shores us a project that Shoenbeck said has been overdue since he served as a staff assistant to then-congressman Jim Abnor in the early 1980s. On Thursday, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Michael Diedrich said the line will deliver ag and industrial products produced in the state to "Chadron, the Wyoming area and points east."

He even uttered a phrase rarely heard in the cold capitol at session's end.

"I'm enjoying what we're doing," said Diedrich. "There's a lot of intensity, a lot of activity, a lot of what we're doing are some transformational things."

South Dakota Republicans (l to r) speak at the weekly press conference, Assistant House Majority Leader Chris Johnson, of Rapid City, House Majority Leader Kent Peterson, of Salem, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Michael Diedrich, of Rapid City, and Sen. Casey Crabtree of Madison. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

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