'Spenders' in style, as expenditure bills pile up in notoriously thrifty South Dakota Legislature
An unprecedented $250 million in one-time funds, thanks largely to federal coronavirus payments, is up-for-grabs at the Statehouse in Pierre, S.D., and has enticed a range of spending proposals from lawmakers and the governor, from a $19 million beef barn to $6 million to pave a gravel road out west.
PIERRE S.D. — Had the cattle barn on South Dakota's state fair grounds in Huron -- which was lost in a fire last Halloween -- been destroyed in another year, its rebirth might've been a different story.
Legislators in Pierre are big on boot-straps and private donations.
But given that this year lawmakers and Gov. Kristi Noem are eying an unprecedented amount of one-time funds , a committee in the famously penny-pinching Legislature was able to unanimously give the greenlight to the state's general fund picking up the tab on $12 million of a $19 million beef barn and rodeo event space on Tuesday, Feb. 2, without breaking a sweat.
"It's a very large and ambitious project," said Sen. Joshua Klumb , a rural Mitchell Republican and vice-chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. "But I think when we look at the state fair, it's more than just ag. It's camaraderie, and that's what we need in our nation right now."
"Camaraderie" is not normally a reason to open the checkbook in the Pierre Statehouse note longtime observers. But this year, there's money to spend.
With much of the $1.25 billion in federal funds infused into the state's budget thanks to the coronavirus aid package passed by Congress last year, South Dakota's projected budget -- a svelte $5 billion affair -- includes as much as $250 million to spend on one-time projects. A typical year sees, maybe, $15 million in spend-it-now funds.
So, like children with fistfuls of quarters in their pockets at the arcade, the state's elected officials are in a buyer's mood. And there's no shortage of projects with bipartisan support.
The highest-profile item is Noem's request for $100 million to fund broadband expansion in the state. Last week, Senate Bill 34 passed unanimously out of committee and is headed to the Joint Appropriations Committee. Supporters say the measure dovetails with Congress's push in last spring's $3 trillion CARES Act to retrofit economies for the pandemic.
"If you don't have it (high-speed connectivity), you're on the wrong side of the digital divide," Greg Dean, Director of Industry Relations with the South Dakota Telecommunications Association, said Tuesday. "It's important as electricity, or clean water, or a sewer system."
But other infrastructure projects might've fit on a longshot wish-list in any other year. Noem has requested over $3 million to a proposed recreation center near Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder. She's also asked for $5 million for a new plane for the state fleet and Game, Fish and Parks has requested $500,000 for a new bison interpretive center earmarked for Custer State Park.
"I think you need to think bigger," Scott Simpson, director for the parks and recreation division of GFP, told lawmakers last week in a Senate State Affairs committee meeting when paraphrasing what the philanthropist Walter Panzirer told park staff when they first proposed a more modest bison center.
Panzirer's The Leona H. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust is providing $4 million in private financing for the project.
"Thinking bigger" is not just the mantra taken up by the governor this term. Legislators are also lining up with ways to spend funds -- from the big to small -- not normally available in Pierre.
Rep. Rebecca Reimer , a Republican from Chamberlain, is asking for $67,500 for a hydrology study in Brule County. Rep. Ryan Cwach, a Yankton Democrat, wants $10 million from the general fund to create a medical reinsurance program . Sen. Mary Duvall, a Pierre Republican, put forward calling for $6 million to rehabilitate the railroad connecting Ft. Pierre with Midland.
And Rep. Trish Ladner, a Hot Springs Republican, wants $4 million to pave a road in a canyon in Fall River County.
It's all a far cry from a year ago when legislators jockeyed over $5 million to fund a broadband grant, said Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat. He wishes more of the money would target those impacted by COVID-19.
"Too much has been spent on pet projects and not actually taking care of families that have been affected by COVID-19," Nesiba said.
He noted that, as of Tuesday, at least 1,700 South Dakotans have died from the virus.
As any usual year in Pierre, there are a number of bills that only contain ambiguous titles, such as "make an appropriation to improve the greatness of South Dakota," that stand ready to be hog-housed down the road for other expenditures.
One legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said once revenue projections firm up in a week, they'll figure out how many more "spenders" lawmakers need to put up.
In other words, there might be big "spenders" still to come.