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Legislature wants eyes on incoming federal money


In the next few years, the state will get billions of dollars in federal infrastructure money. Lawmakers want more oversight on how that money is spent.

Governor Kristi Noem is critical of the idea, saying it could create a full-time legislature.

The Infrastructure Investment Act will send nearly $3 billion to South Dakota over the next half decade. There are also grants for electric vehicle charging stations and climate change resilience projects.

And – the state is also still receiving federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act. A lot of it.

That presents a problem for some lawmakers.

“We don’t know what they’re for," said Republican Representative Chris Karr, from Sioux Falls. “So, how do we appropriate those dollars and that authority if we don’t know what they’re for?”

Karr is chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He said the legislature does not give blanket spending authority to the executive branch. Karr said the legislature controls the purse strings.

“We don’t know when these dollars will come in. We don’t know the guidance in which they can be used," Karr said. "The way we interpret the constitution is these dollars can be appropriated for a specific purpose.”

Lawmakers did pass a measure that addresses legislative approval for future spending.

Authorization of federal dollars loomed over most of the recent legislative session.

In early February, the state received $100 million for childcare stabilization grants. The Noem administration was waiting for legislative approval to issue checks to registered childcare facilities.

But the House stalled on the vote. Then, the Senate quickly introduced a resolution saying the executive branch could spend the money.

Republican State Senator Jean Hunhoff, of Yankton, said the two chambers had a difference of opinion.

“The authorization of the federal dollars, that has certainly been a bone of contention between the House and the Senate," Hunhoff said.

That split the two chambers during budget negotiations.

But lawmakers came together on a bill requiring legislative oversight on any new programs from federal dollars. The bill would require that members of a special joint appropriations committee meet to approve any new spending

Republican Governor Kristi Noem said she has concerns about the legislation.

Governor Kristi Noem on social media criticizing lawmakers on a bill that requires more legislative oversite on incoming federal infrastructure dollars.
Governor Kristi Noem on social media criticizing lawmakers on a bill that requires more legislative oversite on incoming federal infrastructure dollars.

“What it does is it takes every single federal grant that comes into the state, any entity, non-profit, business, whatever it is, and makes sure it has to go to the appropriations committee before it can be disbursed,” Noem said.

She made the comments last week during a social media video on the last day of regularly scheduled legislative session.

The governor’s office had lobbyists working on lawmakers to reject the bill.

Noem called the bill bad government and says it will slow down spending federal dollars.

“It is saying that the appropriations committee will have to be here full time to approve all of these grants, which there are thousands and thousands of them every single year," Noem said.

Others disagree.

“The governor’s statement isn’t accurate. This does not create a full-time legislature," said Democratic State Senator Troy Heinert, from Mission.

He says the bill was key to lawmakers passing a state budget.

“Honestly, it was our only path forward if we were going to pass a general appropriations bill," Heinert said. "We know the federal government and the Biden administration are sending serious dollars to South Dakota. There should be oversight on that.”

Heinert said if the federal money goes to an existing program, the executive branch can spend the money.

“What this says is that if new dollars come in and have a significant policy change or create a new program then all they have to do is go to the joint appropriations committee and explain how they’re going to spend that money," Heinert added.

The bill sunsets in July 2023. 

Senate Republican Majority Leader Gary Cammack, from Union Center, said the idea was not popular in the Senate but was needed to pass a budget.

“But it’s a situation that, in the end, we got to work together. We can’t just walk away from these things,” Cammack said. “It’s yet to be seen how it’s going to work out. We’ll stay tuned.”

The governor has not indicated whether she will veto the bill. Both chambers passed the legislation with a 2/3 majority. That’s enough to override a veto if it happens.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.