PIERRE, S.D. -- In her first State of the State address, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem laid out her highly anticipated policy priorities for 2019, including developing a stronger workforce, building the state’s economy, building the state’s internet infrastructure and “cracking down” on methamphetamine abuse.
Notably, Noem proposed a pilot affordable housing program for small communities, a requirement for students to pass a citizenship test prior to high school graduation and a push to expand rural internet access throughout the state.
Noem told media following her Tuesday, Jan. 8 address that she intends to release her Fiscal 2020 budget proposal in the next week.
Here are some of Noem’s policy proposals from Tuesday’s address:
In order to strengthen the state’s workforce, Noem said one of its greatest barriers is a shortage of affordable housing. In order to increase housing options, Noem proposed a pilot project by the state Housing Development Authority to erect multi-housing units, or DakotaPlexes. Under the program, communities of less than 500 people would be eligible to purchase and rent these units at affordable rates.
Professional licensing requirements also pose a hurdle to potential workers, Noem said, calling for a “full review” of the state’s licensing requirements from the Department of Labor and Regulation in hopes of streamlining licensing processes or entirely eliminating those deemed unnecessary.
Noem voiced her support for school choice, saying family’s education decisions should be supported. She said she plans to bring forward legislation this year to remove a testing requirement for homeschool families, and to support legislation that would make homeschooled students eligible the the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship.
She also, to the legislature’s standing applause, proposed emphasizing civics education in K-12 curriculum and requiring high school students to pass the United States citizenship test prior to graduation.
“I believe the next generation of South Dakotans must understand the foundations of our nation, the tremendous sacrifices made to protect our constitutional rights and the freedoms, liberties, and responsibilities we have as citizens.
Noem said despite what she called the state’s “strong business climate,” the economy has begun to lag in recent years. To build it up again, she said the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED) will begin working to identify and recruit “the next big thing,” or industry.
In addition to recruiting new business, Noem said the state can do more to support those that already exist. For instance, in the state’s number-one industry of agriculture, boosting in-state crop sales could help guard farmers against tariffs, she said, and agriculture could contain opportunity for healthcare and technology research.
Despite the state’s rural roots and an economy driven by agriculture, Noem said widespread and reliable internet access is a "basic requirement" for the future success of South Dakota students, residents and businesses, and “we must make those investments now.”
She called internet access a statewide issue, noting that In half of South Dakota’s counties, there are rural areas where half of the residents do not have broadband access. Bringing internet to these underserved areas is expensive, but she said “I refuse to quit.”
To “close the broadband gap,” Noem proposed partnering with the private sector through the GOED, looking into the latest technology and comparing other states’ initiatives to bring broadband access to rural areas.
“Geographic location cannot be an excuse for the government to do nothing when the future vitality of our economy is at stake,” she said. “Geographic location no longer has to be a barrier to participating in the global economy.”
The methamphetamine epidemic
“Some of us want to look away” from the state’s ever-increasing statewide use of methamphetamine, Noem said Tuesday but, “we can’t do that. We have to stare down meth."
In her plan to “stare down” the drug epidemic, Noem said she plans to focus her administration on three areas: education, enforcement and treatment.
By educating children from a young age about the dangers of meth and treating drug addiction once it happens, Noem said the state can prevent the spread of addiction and focus on treating addicts, as opposed to imprisoning then.
At the same time though, Noem said she proposes the state more aggressively enforce drug law to prevent meth from being funneled into the state and “crack down” on drug dealers.
Noem closed her policy agenda on one of her campaign promises, calling it a “cornerstone” to her plans as governor: to make South Dakota’s government more transparent. To do this, she said she plans to ensure her administration officials make government meeting agendas, minutes and livestreams easily accessible online, and push for a reporter shield law to be passed by the end of the 2019 legislative session.
To boost the state’s number-one industry of agriculture, -- which she admits has had “a tough few years” -- Noem said she plans to use her D.C. connections from her time in Congress to improve trade agreements for farmers.
Noem proposed increasing efforts to conserve pheasant habitats in the state by pushing for increased CRP acreage and working with the Game, Fish and Parks Department to fund-raise for conservation efforts.
Democratic leaders told media following Noem’s address that she made several proposals that they supported -- such as affordable housing development and drug addiction treatment, as opposed to incarceration -- but that she also missed some issues they hoped would be discussed.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Troy Heinert of Mission said he hoped to hear more solutions from Noem to address the cost and accessibility of health care in the state, and also more discussion on K-12 education funding.
Heinert also said as a Native American, he questioned the implications of Noem’s proposed citizenship test for high schoolers.
“How do we have to prove ourselves?” Heinert asked. “What is really going to come from it? If they fail, are they not citizens of the United States?”
He also said he wished Noem spoke more on the state’s relationship to its nine native reservations. Noem touched on hopes to increase dialogue with South Dakota’s tribes and work on tribal economic development, but Heinert said, “That just wasn’t enough.”
“We have some serious issues on our reservations and I think we have some tribal leaders who are willing to come to the table and talk about how we can cooperate and do things to help tribal people,” he said.
In addition to Noem’s address, the 2019 legislative session began on Tuesday and is expected to run through March.