Lawmakers Look Ahead To 2021 Legislative Session

PIERRE — From pot to the pandemic, South Dakota lawmakers face a variety of issues when the opening gavel drops Tuesday for the 2021 Legislature.

Even before the session begins, legislators are dealing with COVID-19 protocols in the Capitol and whether members can work remotely from home. A number of legislators have already tested positive for the virus, and one lawmaker died last March from COVID-19.

The federal government has granted states an extension until Dec. 31, 2021, for spending stimulus money. South Dakota has received $1.25 billion in CARES funding, with some of it already allocated. In addition, legislators will deal with the uncertainty of crafting a budget during a pandemic.

In November, South Dakota voters made national news by passing Constitutional Amendment “A” legalizing recreational marijuana and Initiated Measure 26 legalizing medical marijuana. The state became the first in the nation to pass both recreational and medical marijuana at the same time. However, a court challenge has been filed against “A,” and the Legislature could change IM 26.


District 18 Sen. Jean Hunhoff (R-Yankton), a registered nurse and business owner, is moving over to the Senate after serving in the House. She will continue playing a key role on the Joint Appropriations Committee that oversees budget requests.

“The Joint Appropriations Committee will be very busy this year with all the recommendations for the one-time dollars that are going to be available,” she said.

During the first week, the committee will meet after session to cover agency requests. Pre-filing of bills by agencies is occurring for many of the special appropriations the governor has requested.  

“There could be change in the hearing process if COVID impacts committee members,” she said. “This is a new norm which trial and error may be part of the adjustment to how we do business during the legislative session.”

On the House side, the District 18 delegation features two familiar faces. Rep. Ryan Cwach (D-Yankton) returns for another term, while Rep. Mike Stevens (R-Yankton) is back in Pierre after a hiatus. Both men are attorneys.

Stevens will serve as vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee and also will serve on the Education Committee. He previously served on both committees.

“The pandemic and its impact upon our state will be reflected in a lot of legislation introduced this session, particularly as our public and private sector deal with this issue,” he said.

“I would expect that budgetary requests will be made from the state agencies to reflect efforts as a result of the pandemic. I expect there will be legislation introduced that will address the limits of liability as a result of the pandemic.”

Stevens expects legislation in response to the voter-passed marijuana issues. “Rules and regulations will need to be prepared to implement this new legislation as well as adjustments to our criminal law statutes,” he said.

 The Legislature will also face measures dealing with education, Stevens said.

“As a former school board member and husband of a teacher, I am very interested in what additional funding will be provided considering all of the adjustments that our school systems have had to do in their attempt to educate our children in person and remotely,” he said. “With new Secretary of Education (Tiffany) Sanderson, it will be exciting to see what ideas and recommendations that she will have.”

With fewer Democrats in the Legislature, Cwach becomes even more visible in leadership for the minority party. He foresees handling the pandemic as a major concern in the upcoming session.

 “The vaccine is not being distributed fast enough to where I feel confident that 2021, particularly the first six to nine months, is going to be much different from 2020,” he said. “I’m hopeful that new federal leadership will change the speed and efficiency of distribution.”

In the meantime, the state finds itself with a large budget surplus that can be used to address COVID, Cwach said.

“With this much money, it’s wrong to force our elderly to isolate alone from their friends and families. We should provide funds immediately to long-term care facilities to improve air ventilation and filtration systems and also develop ways for long-term care residents to safely visit with loved ones,” he said.

“Schools have been the other entity that have had to really adapt to COVID-19, and we should use some of our available funds to put school districts to succeed during COVID-19 as well as after.”

He also anticipates a significant push by many legislators to use some of the surplus to fix and maintain county and township roads.

On another issue, Cwach said he’s excited by Gov. Kristi Noem’s recent announcement of potentially $100 million for a needs-based scholarship for South Dakota students. He wants to see the finer details of the plan.

“I’m particularly concerned that her proposal did not include Mount Marty University (in Yankton) as an eligible school,” he said. “Mount Marty University attracts a lot of low-income students already, and those students should not be denied this scholarship simply because they felt Mount Marty, instead of Augustana, USF (the University of Sioux Falls) or a state school, was the right school for them.”


• District 17 Sen. Art Rusch (R-Vermillion), a retired circuit judge and writer, returns to Pierre and will serve as a committee chair for the first time. As Judiciary Committee chairman, he will make decisions on running the committee and taking testimony in meeting COVID concerns.

He is proposing legislation on two major issues. First, he is seeking expansion of the Vermillion Basin Water Development District to include all counties in the Vermillion River watershed to make needed beneficial improvements. Also, the retired circuit judge is continuing his effort to repeal the death penalty in South Dakota.

Rusch said he has been asked about the new marijuana laws. He foresees an effort to make changes in IM 26, the medical marijuana law, to fix what appear to be flaws in the measure. As for Amendment A, he said the measure gives the “exclusive power” to make laws regulating those things to the executive branch of government.

• District 17 Rep. Sydney Davis (R-Burbank), a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) and cattle producer, is making her first trip to Pierre as a new legislator. The House and Senate leadership teams have drawn up an 11-page COVID-19 procedures report, which covers a number of topics, she said.

She will serve on the House Education Committee and House Health and Human Services Committee. “As a health-care provider and mother of a young child, I’m looking forward to lending my expertise and perspective to these two committees,” she said.

• District 21 Sen. Erin Tobin (R-Winner), a nurse practitioner and rancher, will make her first trip to Pierre as a freshman lawmaker. “The 2021 session is just started, and we have eight short weeks to work on legislation.” she said.

She has been appointed to four committees: Health and Human Services, Commerce and Energy, Education, and Tribal Relations. “I feel like these appointments are a great fit for me based on my background,” she said.

After holding conversations with constituents and other legislators, she expects the session’s main topics to include one-time spending allocations from the budget surplus, K-12 education, recovering from the pandemic and preparing for the future, marijuana legislation and surrogacy.

On the agricultural front, Tobin believes an increased capacity for local meat processing and storage would improve the local market and provide food security for the state.

“South Dakota has the best beef in the world, and we need to be able to stamp that on our meat packages,” she said. “The governor prioritized this in her budget address, and there will be grants available for those who apply, when the time comes.”

Legislators who aren’t ranchers haven’t personally experienced the problem in the way ranchers have felt it, Tobin said. She believes her background and experience will play a key role in crafting legislation for the grants for beef producers.

“As a fourth generation ag producer, I hope to help with this process and make certain it has a true impact,” she said. “Everyone during this pandemic has felt the strain of meat being sparse on the shelves or costs going up at the grocery store. In South Dakota, there should always be local meat on our shelves at an affordable cost.”

On another issue, medical marijuana will require immediate legislation, Tobin said. Many legislators have started drafting bills, and she wants to help give insight into the process.

On the Senate side, she anticipates the bill will be first heard in the Health and Human Services Committee, where she serves as vice chair.

“I want to see medical marijuana accessible to the patients that need it, safe for the public and regulated appropriately,” she said.

Tobin sees the pandemic requiring attention on at least two fronts.

South Dakota businesses have fared better during the pandemic than in states with forced shutdowns, Tobin said. She sees more opportunities in the state because of it.

“The Legislature must continue to prioritize small business in order to support sustainability and growth at this opportune time,” she said. “One bill that I have drafted will remove a loophole in warranty work for South Dakota businesses. The loophole has hurt small South Dakota businesses and helped out-of-state large businesses. I want to close this loophole.”

As a health-care professional, she noted the state’s health-care systems successfully handled the December surge for COVID. She remains confident any future surges will be handled in the same way.

“The vaccine holds much promise for an eventual end to this pandemic, and South Dakota is getting it rolled out despite the overwhelming challenges,” she said.

• District 16 Rep. Kevin Jensen (R-Canton), a business owner, will serve as House Majority Whip in the 2021 session. He sees COVID-19 and marijuana as the “obvious front runners” among topics.

The COVID challenges range from the health risks to economic failure, Jensen said.

On the health side, he believes in personal responsibility such as proper hygiene, staying away from high-exposure situations and remaining home if ill. The Legislature will follow COVID protocols during the session, he added.

“From the economic side, I see absolutely no benefit in restricting small businesses while encouraging people to go to the big retailers. The government should never have control over which businesses are winners and which are losers,” he said.

“All businesses should be able to conduct business their own way, and let the people decide which businesses and which business practices they support. I believe our governor has done the right thing and fully support those decisions.”

Jensen chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, which he foresees receiving many of the marijuana-related bills.

“The marijuana issue is a mixed bag, no pun intended. The people obviously supported medical marijuana, but that does not mean it just happens,” he said. “There will be many bills introduced to cover the regulatory issues that were not addressed in IM 26. Amendment A brings an entirely different set of challenges (with its pending legislation).”

This past summer, Jensen chaired the Mental Health Services Delivery Task Force, and he expects legislation to come from its work. Much of the task force’s focus centered on making sure individuals charged with crimes are competent to understand charges. Another topic focused on continued efforts to authorize appropriate regional facilities to handle crisis stabilization.  

“The current system is often overwhelmed, and wait times for services can linger into months in jail,” he said. “Pilot programs are promising and, in many cases, those times are reduced to weeks or even just a few days.”

As a firearms instructor, he wants to clarify common questions of self-defense where current laws are ambiguous. He is drafting a bill more clearly identifying individuals’ rights in their own homes.

In looking at the Legislature as a whole, Jensen doesn’t believe the Republicans’ increased supermajority after the last election will affect the session.

“We’re not like Washington D.C. Our friends on the other side of the aisle are still our friends, and there is an atmosphere of bipartisanship on many bills,” he said.

“On those bills which we are in opposition, we debate the issue and take the vote. At the end of the day, we are all South Dakotans with just a different view on certain issues, much like a family gathering.”


The Press & Dakotan sought email comments from legislators in District 16, 17, 18, 19 and 21.

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