PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Think you have money troubles during this pandemic? South Dakota lawmakers are feuding among themselves about whether they gave the governor implied authority to continue spending millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 aid on new uses.
The dispute has so divided the House that, on Wednesday, Representative Chris Karr tried to lighten the tension with a joke.
The Sioux Falls Republican, who chairs the House half of the Joint Committee on Appropriations that oversees state government’s budget, said the internal fight over whether the governor should first have the appropriators’ permission to disperse money for specific purposes was, for the listening public, like watching actors playing scientists talk about astrophysics on the TV comedy Big Bang Theory.
House members spent much of Wednesday afternoon arguing about two pieces of legislation that sought to make clear Governor Kristi Noem first needed specific authority to spend the federal COVID aid.
The eight House Republican appropriators unanimously backed both bills. But both eventually failed, HB 1335 on a 30-39 vote, and HB 1336 by a vote of 32-37. In this instance, all eight House Democrats voted as a bloc against each of the bills, making the difference in stopping the acts from moving over to the Senate for further debate.
The deep split between House Republicans came a week after the Senate, in an unexpected move, unanimously approved a resolution backing the governor.
That same day of February 9, the governor directed the state Department of Social Services to start sending $100 million of grants, funded by federal COVID-19 aid, to South Dakota daycare providers who had applied.
Her action in turn set off a second round of confusion among the state’s attorney general, auditor and treasurer, about whether the action was legal and whether there would be sufficient cash in the state’s account to cover the checks.
The controversy cut so sharply in the House on Wednesday afternoon that representatives adjourned without finishing the rest of the debate calendar. House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, then unilaterally barred news reporters from the House floor for an hour afterward.
Two years ago, then-House Speaker Steven Haugaard, R-Sioux Falls, mustered enough support to force the governor to call a special session for October 5, 2020, so that lawmakers could have some say over how she distributed the first round of federal COVID-19 aid.
Haugaard now is challenging Noem for the Republican nomination in the June primary election. He also now serves on the House Appropriations Committee. He argued Wednesday that lawmakers should rein Noem back and said the current situation was “an abrogation” of legislative authority by the governor.
South Dakota received more federal COVID aid per capita than any other state, according to Haugaard, and letting the governor go forward without spending authority was like giving your child $100 for specific uses and then having that child come back for more, because the $100 had been spent for other things that weren’t on the list.
“We’re talking billions of dollars,” Haugaard said.
Representative David Anderson, R-Hudson, defended the governor’s action. The farmer and insurance agent, who formerly chaired the House Appropriations Committee, said her shifting money around for various uses without exceeding the total federal authority set by appropriators was like shifting money around within a private business’s budget as prices and conditions change during the year.
“We do it in our businesses all the time,” Anderson said. He added, “Let’s not tie our hands so we can’t serve the people.”
Representative Kaleb Weis, R-Aberdeen, saw it very differently. “That’s not the way the state law was intended to be interpreted — ever,” he said. He added, “It’s not about this governor. It’s about the governor in general.” He asked, “Why do we have laws if we’re just going to let people go around them?”
Representative Liz May, R-Kyle, serves on the appropriations panel. “What are we, just a bunch of props in there?” she asked.
May cut to the chase regarding the governor. “But what they did, no matter how you shake it out, they broke the law.”