PIERRE — With the rapidly-changing coronavirus situation, area South Dakota lawmakers say they are uncertain what issues they will face when they gather March 30 for the last day of the Legislature.
The final day is generally reserved for handling governor’s vetoes and any other last-minute business, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created changes on a minute-by-minute basis.
Gov. Kristi Noem has briefed lawmakers on conference calls during the past week on coronavirus-related issues. She told the media last week that she didn’t plan to call a special session, instead waiting for legislators to return March 30.
District 18 Rep. Ryan Cwach (D-Yankton) said, based on Noem’s messages to lawmakers, next week’s session in Pierre may include a number of emergency measures.
“She indicated our gathering on veto day may be used as a special session of sorts to pass any legislation relating to combat the coronavirus,” he said. “Governor Noem indicated she is going to want to redo the budget. … I don’t know what that means or what it will look like.”
District 18 Sen. Craig Kennedy (D-Yankton) expects the scenario to be quite different by the time lawmakers return to Pierre.
“Everything is changing constantly, day by day,” he said. “Who knows what we’ll find a week from now?”
The governor has indicated how she’s approaching the pandemic, Kennedy said.
“Generally speaking, she’s taking a very cautious approach to things. As you know, she doesn’t believe she has the authority to issue some statewide order that shuts things down. She has pushed that (decision-making process) down to the local governments,” he said.
“The only sense I have is that she did indicate Friday that there may be some need to reconsider the budget on veto day, but beyond that there didn’t seem to be any indication what she had in mind.”
In addition to any COVID-19 measures, the Legislature may need to deal with a large number of vetoes, Kennedy said. “The last I heard, (the governor) had 60-plus pieces of passed legislation that were sitting on her desk that she hadn’t acted on yet,” he said.
District 18 Rep. Jean Hunhoff (R-Yankton) noted, during updates with legislators, Noem has related information from her conversations with the Trump Administration, including possible federal assistance for small businesses and their employees.
Hunhoff, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, inquired about the level of available federal funding, particularly its impact on the South Dakota budget.
“I did ask (the governor) about federal dollars that (would be) appropriated during the final day of the session,” Hunhoff said. “At this time, the final federal allocation has not been concluded on by Congress. Until then, we are in a wait mode for criteria as how to use the dollars.”
In addition, Noem has provided an update on the latest health-related developments, Hunhoff said.
“The governor and her staff, along with the (South Dakota) Secretary of Health and the health care systems in our state and our local emergency management team, continue to address the detection, treatment and prevention of the spread of the coronavirus,” Hunhoff said.
While unsure of the governor’s possible proposals, Cwach said he has his own legislative agenda for dealing with the cornonavirus outbreak.
“On veto day, I think the Legislature needs to consider other measures to assist South Dakota families and medical providers,” he said.
His proposals include:
• Pass an emergency appropriation to acquire significantly more testing kits, ventilators, respirators and personal protective equipment.
• Delay the first half 2020 real estate tax payment, presently due on April 30, to June 1.
• Public assurances and guarantees that hourly state employees will continue to receive payment until they are allowed back to work.
• April municipal and school district elections should be postponed to the June 2 primary, and the state should allow for vote-by-mail elections, which he said has worked well in Nebraska.
“Gov. Noem has also stated several times that she does not have the authority to shut things down,” he said. “The Legislature should authorize this power, so she can make that decision when or if it becomes necessary.”
District 17 Sen. Art Rusch (R-Vermillion) said the governor indicated 75-80 of the 105 legislators have joined in the phone briefings with lawmakers.
“The concern that several of the legislators shared with the governor is the adverse effect this shutdown and social isolation is having on our small businesses and their employees,” he said. “So far, no one knows what to do to alleviate that hardship. There is so much that is still unknown about the virus and its effects ...”
District 16 Rep. Kevin Jensen (R-Canton), who serves on the Health and Human Services Committee, said the state looks to ramp up COVID-19 testing. The governor indicated hundreds more tests are being done by the health care systems. State officials report the number of patients who test positive for the virus, with those numbers including hospitals, independent labs and state lab testing, he said.
“We’ll be facing this virus for weeks, possibly eight or more. There is a concern it may get worse before it gets better,” Jensen said.
South Dakota’s schools remain closed through at least the end of this week, and state officials are working with school districts on issues such as online learning and standardized testing, Jensen said.
In addition, Noem has addressed the question about mandatory shutdowns of business, Jensen said.
“The governor … stated she HAS NOT encouraged or recommended that towns should shut down all activity. Any decision to shut down businesses would be done on a town-by-town basis by each city council,” he said. “Some businesses are voluntarily limiting exposure of the customers by utilizing drive-through access and call-in orders, and some are temporarily closed.”
South Dakota has already experienced an economic impact with COVID-19, Jensen said.
“The governor stated what we already know — there will be a significant drop in revenue and we will have to address some of the planned projects on veto day,” he said. “We may be putting some on hold until next year. The budget will be affected for several years. We are already planning major budget revisions for veto day.”
Lawmakers have already been considering the COVID-19 impact on the state’s budget, revenues and overall economy, Hunhoff said.
“During those last few days of (the main run of the) session, there was much discussion about the potential impact of the coronavirus,” she said. “It was concluded, at that point in time, that there was consideration of potential impact … but not at the level we are seeing. It’s apparent that treatment for both physical and mental health conditions associated with the virus, self-imposed quarantines, school closures, reductions in both large and small businesses and change in the normal way of life will have serious impact on the financial resources that support our state budget.”
She added, “There is also the urgency to respond to the needs of our health care providers in all areas of service for their readiness to respond to the medical needs of our citizens. All lives in South Dakota are potentially impacted by the virus.”
Cwach questioned Noem’s approach toward the coronavirus outbreak.
“I am now concerned that the governor’s daily denial of community spread in South Dakota has caused members of the public to downplay or ignore the looming threat from the coronavirus,” he said. “The governor appears to be relying on the test results as her justification in that conclusion, but there are several problems with relying solely on test results at this point in time.”
Cwach said he feared the pandemic will grow in South Dakota. He noted the rise in cases in Beadle County, where Huron is the county seat. As of Sunday, the state saw seven new cases — six in Beadle County — raising the total to 21 positive tests.
“Community spread escalates the public health threat since the virus will no longer be isolated and it’s harder to shut it down,” he said. “Community spread is certainly happening in Beadle County and likely in other places.”
When he visits with the general public, Kennedy has found the coronavirus literally the only topic of conversation.
“(They ask) about things like social distancing and whether people are doing what they should be doing. “The other question is: How are we going to deal with this long-term?”
The challenge is dealing with both the immediate and long-range needs, Kennedy said.
“This isn’t going to be over in two weeks. We’re now dealing with something that we haven’t dealt with before and weren’t ready for,” he said. “Who knows what we’ll see by next week? We’re just dealing with this day by day.”
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