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Growing Sioux Falls region's legislative district lines attract public scrutiny during public meeting

While Republican lawmakers representing the current boundaries, which cut widely across rural and urban areas, a number of community members pointed out what appears to be politically unfair to both city and country residents in and around the state's largest city.

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Former Republican legislator Lora Hubbel brings a map up to public testimony during a Sioux Falls redistricting sub-committee meeting at Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2021. (Vondracek / Forum News Service)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Lawmakers from South Dakota's most populated corner stood to defend their current district boundaries during a public input meeting for redistricting on Tuesday, Sept. 28, but they were outnumbered by community members seeking a change in the region's meandering legislative district lines.

"I'm really kind of speaking in opposition to what we've heard from our legislators," said Joan McMillan, a Sioux Falls resident. "I think the needs of the city are different from rural needs."

McMillan listed city issues such as affordable housing, the assimilation of new immigrants into the U.S., traffic jams, and police presence, adding, "I did not know what a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] was until a few years ago."

Jill Groth, who lives near Rowena, South Dakota, told the Sioux Falls redistricting subcommittee that had gathered in a classroom of Southeast Technical College that she felt perplexed that the nearby town of Brandon wasn't in her district but faraway Dell Rapids was.

"I kind of feel voiceless," said Groth, who lives in District 25. "It's hard for me to take part in the process when I'm not physically close to my representatives."

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The subcommittee of a half-dozen legislators on the committee is tackling drawing lines for a so-called conurbation area, which would define the boundaries of Sioux Falls for the purposes of divvying up the metropolitan area's districts. A similar listening session took place earlier this month in Rapid City. A tribal subcommittee met in Pierre this week, as well.

Sioux Falls, say lawmakers, represents a particular challenge not only because it keeps growing in relation to the state's mostly rural population but also because it encompasses parts of two counties and a number of bedroom communities. Critics charge the current boundaries draw too widely around all of Minnehaha County, allowing rural, often more conservative voters to outpace urban voters in many districts.

On Tuesday night, the public testimony portion opened with a flank of Republican incumbents who represent the region standing up to defend the status quo.

"We are a region. We have similar interests. We have similar needs," said Rep. Rhonda Milstead , a Republican from Hartford whose district comprises western Minnehaha County and reaches into northern and western Sioux Falls. "To separate any part of it is to cut any part out and ... is not to be fair or just to this region."

Sen. Maggie Sutton , R-Sioux Falls, represents District 10, which encompasses Brandon as well northeastern Sioux Falls, including Washington High School and areas just east of Smithfield's slaughterhouse. She also pushed back on the notion that representing two distinct cities was untenable, noting, "Brandon is a big part of my district."

After Rep. Jack Kolbeck , R-Sioux Falls, stood up to offer a "ditto" to his colleagues' comments, Brian Burge, a resident from Beresford, told the committee that the current make-up allows three Sioux Falls lawmakers — "from Dawley Farm" — to represent small-town voters in Dell Rapids, South Dakota.

In actuality, the opposite is true. Three lawmakers who reside in Dell Rapids — Reps. Jon Hansen , Tom Pischke , and Sen. Marsha Symens — represent District 25, which includes large swaths of eastern Sioux Falls.

In an email to Forum News Service on Tuesday, Symens acknowledged it was a "bit of a challenge" to connect with constituents living in Sioux Falls, particularly as the various communities host events that conflict on the schedule.

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By Tuesday's conclusion, the committee appeared to warm to two maps proposed by Sen. Casey Crabtree , R-Madison, and Rep. Drew Dennert , R-Aberdeen, that drew closely hewed lines around Sioux Falls. Crabtree's plan would encompass many smaller communities, such as Brandon and Tea, into the area, while Dennert's plan aligns onto the city boundaries.

The next meeting of the full redistricting committee is Thursday, Sept. 30. Lawmakers will tour the state over three days beginning Oct. 11 and convene on Nov. 8 in Pierre to ultimately approve a new map. The state constitution requires such a map be due by Dec. 1 using the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.

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