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Special Session Unlikely As Legislature Conducts Field Hearings


State legislators are gathering public input about how to spend more than half a billion dollars in remaining federal pandemic relief money.

They’ll hold virtual and in-person public hearings over the next few days. But there’s still no answer about whether lawmakers will hold a special session later this year to talk about the state’s spending options.
South Dakota businesses are reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Many have looked to state and federal relief packages to stay in business.  Bruce Anderson owns Western Buffalo Company in Rapid City. It processes up to 200 buffalo a week and distributes the meat nationwide.
When restaurants closed back in the spring, Anderson lost a lot of business. So he  says his processing facility made a quick switch to slaughter hogs. That helped with the backlog created by the plant shutdowns at Smithfield in Sioux Falls and other meat packing plants.
Despite the business downturn, Anderson remains optimistic as the legislature considers how to spend its pandemic relief money.
“You get the world in a state of flux like this has caused and you get the opportunity to push things in your direction a little bit if you have the wherewithal to do that," Anderson says.
Anderson and other packers and ranchers recently talked with lawmakers to say they’d like to control more livestock processing locally.
It’s one of several ideas likely to come up as lawmakers hear from state residents this week.
The state got $1.25 billion in total relief money from the federal government--that’s a quarter of the state’s annual budget. It’s already spent $114 million. Governor Kristi Noem recently announced a $400 million business grant initiative.
The state has had access to the relief money for months, and the governor’s office has coordinated the spending. Republican Senator Lance Russell of Hot Springs isn’t pleased with how it’s been working.

“The money was appropriated by the Congress in the spring, and we’ve sat on $1 billion dollars since the spring while the people of South Dakota have hurt,” Russell says. “I don’t know if it’s because she’s been out gallivanting around the country not paying attention to the job she was elected to do, or if there is some other grand design to what is going on here. But the problem is that it's not transparent.”

Russell is one of several Republican lawmakers who want more input on how to spend the money.
Republican Speaker of the House, Steve Haugaard of Sioux Falls, says this is something that state lawmakers should have a greater hand in.
He says the reason the state hasn’t spent more of the federal aid, has to do with confusion over whether there would be a special session.
“It was back in June when I started pushing for listening sessions, special session, whatever we could do to gather some information,” Haugaard says. “Because by that time you knew what the suffering was starting to look like. We just didn’t get the cooperation with the Senate, honestly.”
They need a two-thirds majority from both chambers to call a special session. Governor Noem says she is still considering one.
But there’s some disagreement about who controls this spending. The governor’s office says it doesn’t need legislative approval. State law gives the governor the power to spend money that comes from Congress.

Some lawmakers point to a different state law that says the appropriations committee  must approve the spending first. However - the state’s chief financial officer, Liza Clark, says that only applies to the general fund.
“We would agree that in the general fund we can’t do that, but in the federal and other fund expenditure authority—we do have to come to the legislature at some point—but the federal fund authority, we think we can spend," Clark says.
Noem wants ideas from legislators on how to spend the money. Senate Republicans helped craft the $400 million dollar business grant initiative.
Republican Kris Langer is the majority leader in the Senate. She says they won’t need a special session. Langer says the most effective way to get dollars to South Dakotans is to gather public opinion and use the joint appropriations committee to make spending decisions.
“The governor feels very strongly about that, as well as I do, that we can do this in an effective way and still hear the voices of South Dakotans that are in need," Langer says.
There are five legislative subject committees that will meet to hear from state residents today through next Tuesday.

Lee Strubinger is the politics and public policy reporter for SDPB.

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.
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