Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill into law Thursday that will provide 100% tuition benefits for National Guard members at South Dakota technical colleges and public universities.
The increase from 50% to 100% coverage will benefit the Guard by providing another incentive for recruitment and retention, Noem said.
Noem, whose father served in the National Guard, spoke in front of several Guard members at the Range Road Armory in Rapid City during the signing and shortly before a deployment ceremony for the 216th Fire Fighting Team, which will spend a year in the U.S. European Command area of operations. Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who was a guardsman himself, also spoke at the signing.
The governor told attendees the increased benefit is a statement from South Dakota taxpayers that they support the work of the National Guard, citing the emergency efforts during flooding, wildfires or during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They recognize every single day, when there is a tornado or derecho, that it’s National Guard members who come to their communities and that when they need help, you provide it,” Noem said.
She added that discussions to cover tuition costs have been in play since she was elected to the state Legislature in 2006, and she doesn’t expect to ever have to “defend spending these dollars on you.”
Noem’s office put the annual cost of the initiative at $1.9 million during her budget address in December 2022.
South Dakota Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Lyn Waldie, a recruiter, said the initiative is the “single greatest new benefit” he’s seen in his years of service.
“I am excited about the power of possibility that comes with it for those who answer the call to serve our great state and nation,” Waldie said.
The increase in tuition coverage for National Guard members was one of several proposals Noem introduced during the 2023 legislative session, which lawmakers concluded earlier this month, except for a day on March 27 to consider vetoes.
Noem had three major initiatives she pushed during the session and announced during her annual Budget Address in December and State of the State address in January: improving the state’s workforce, “securing” South Dakota and expanding her “Stronger Families” initiative.
Noem signed workforce bills that lower the unemployment insurance employer contributions by 0.5% and recognize out-of-state occupational licenses. She also signed a bill that would amend references to the governor and other officials in state statute and the South Dakota Constitution to their titles instead of “he” or “him.”
Noem’s “Securing South Dakota” initiative focused on protecting the agricultural industry and assets in South Dakota. Earlier this week, Noem signed a bill that will make it more difficult to file a nuisance complaint or lawsuit against an agricultural operation. However, a bill that would establish a committee to review foreign ag land purchases failed to garner enough support in the Legislature.
Much of Noem’s focus on her pro-life, “Stronger Families” initiative failed to pass through the Legislature this session. That included cutting the overall sales tax on groceries, creating a 100% paid family leave program for state employees that private businesses could also buy into, and helping children in foster care with scholarship vouchers.
The only initiative that made it through the legislative process was a bill that requires both parents to cover pregnancy costs instead of just the mother.
While Noem pushed for an elimination of the state sales tax on groceries, lawmakers chose instead to temporarily cut the overall state sales tax from 4.5% to 4.2% for four years. Lawmakers also exceeded her recommended 5% increase in funding for education, state employees and Medicaid providers.
Noem has vaguely threatened to veto the decision in recent weeks.
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