First Sioux Falls ‘Legislative Coffee’ sees heavy pour of session’s cultural bills
Transgender surgery for minors, regulation of drag shows on public property and the definition of "obscene" were among the topics discussed on Saturday.
Seven lawmakers fresh off the legislative session’s lone five-day week faced tough questioning — the bulk of it on the cultural issues consuming the legislature — on Saturday, Feb. 4, during the Sioux Falls area’s first of three Legislative Coffees.
Under the microscope this weekend at Southeastern Tech were District 6’s Rep. Aaron Aylward, Rep. Ernie Otten and Sen. Herman Otten; District 9’s Rep. Ken Teunissen; and District 14’s Rep. Tyler Tordsen and Sen. Larry Zikumnd.
The area Chamber of Commerce is hosting similar events on Feb. 11 and Feb. 25.
Adding a Democratic voice to a conversation between three districts represented entirely by Republicans was Sen. Reynold Nesiba, of District 15 in Sioux Falls.
Outside of detours into taxes, eminent domain and the state’s economic health, the conversation was dominated by cultural considerations from the session’s first four weeks: House Bill 1080’s transgender surgery ban for minors, House Bill 1125’s ban of minors attending drag shows and House Bill 1163’s process to review certain books for potential display to minors in public schools and libraries.
Partisan arguments, with some surprises
According to moderator Betty Oldenkamp, a volunteer with Sioux Falls League of Women Voters, Nesiba promised to speak on every topic broached, and he made good on that guarantee, repeating the view that “Republicans think they know better than you,” during these discussions while laying into the six conservatives on the panel.
Outside of some full-throated defenses of these policies by Aylward, who chairs the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, a small group of conservative lawmakers in the legislature, the rest of the panel remained restrained in the bulk of their answers, often critiquing notions of partisanship or hot-headed rhetoric.
“My frustration with [House Bill 1080], in general, though I did support it, was the rhetoric in general. It’s sky is falling here and you hate kids if you don’t support it, and people are going to hurt themselves if you don’t kill this bill,” Tordsen, a new member in the legislature, said. “And I think that rhetoric is wrong, on both sides, and so that part was super frustrating.”
In his answer to supporting the bill banning transgender surgery and hormone therapy, Aylward called it a “no-brainer,” and noted that the government restricts certain activities for minors. “I look at this bill similar to what it would be like if I let my two little boys drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes,” he said.
In response, Nesiba also called it a “no-brainer,” saying, specifically in the context of suicide prevention, that, “it’s about being able to address health care needs.”
Sen. Herman Otten took issue with Nesiba’s “general statements about Republicans.”
“Regardless of what party affiliation you have, everyone is concerned about individuals who need mental health services,” Otten said.
Zikmund, a well-respected figure in the Senate, seemed to indicate that the bill, which passed 60-10 in the House, would have little difficulty going the rest of the way.
“I would assume it’ll have good support in the Senate because it’s got some good co-sponsors on the Senate side,” he said. “And I think we have a governor that will probably be supportive, so the people that are lobbyists are going to have a tough time convincing Senate legislators to do something different.”
The discussions on banning children from attending drag shows — which a question communicated by Oldenkamp referred to as an attempt to “stifle creative expression” — and limiting books in certain public contexts offered viewers some surprises, too.
On House Bill 1125, Tordsen described the drag show bill as “political posturing and messaging.”
Nesiba in both cases lambasted the bills as within the playbook of “authoritarian regimes,” while Aylward defended them as about “what is appropriate for children.”
Both Sen. Herman Otten and Rep. Ernie Otten expressed doubts about the unclear definition of “obscene” contained in House Bill 1163, which prohibits “obscene material” from being “available to minors” at public libraries and schools.
Budget, tax cuts and eminent domain still to come
Filling in the cracks between lightning-rod cultural topics were discussions that offered somewhat more nuanced answers from the panel were the economic issues looming over the 98th legislative session.
On the three tax proposals now in the hands of appropriators — a grocery tax, sales tax and property tax cut — every lawmaker indicated confidence that some relief would be given to South Dakotans, though the framing of the tax cut discussion will not solidify until final revenue projections for the next year come out Feb. 15.
“Folks we have got to do something to give a break on property tax,” said Sen. Larry Zikumnd, likely representing the feeling of a strong contingent of Senate Republicans. “If you recently received your property tax bill, more than likely it has gone up, in some cases considerably.”
One point of agreement between several of the panelists was on the potential for either of the compromise bills put forward by Sen. Reynold Nesiba, which cut one or two pennies from the sales tax on food as half-measures in case the full cut is too much for some lawmakers to swallow.
“We need to make sure that we understand what the numbers look like to see what we can actually afford and is sustainable for the long run,” Rep. Tyler Tordsen said. “We don’t want to make a big cut now and get excited about it and then two years down we’re looking at a tax increase or major cuts to state government.”
Another economic question that bounced around the panel was what to do with the some $420 million in reserves currently on hand.
“I’m convinced that as more people move here and businesses open, we do have the revenue to do things like better fund education and taking care of those we are responsible for,” Nesiba said, referencing nursing homes and disability providers, among other providers needing state help.
Nesiba did note a concern alluded to by others on the panel that some of the ballooning revenues stem from huge federal stimulus and inflation’s effect on the consumption taxes funding South Dakota.
Rep. Ernie Otten, the lone appropriator on the panel, noted that the plan for some of the money — which budget experts call “one-time” dollars and often shy away from using to fund “ongoing” expenses like schools and care providers — is to start addressing the aging prison facilities, lowering the hit to the state on interest once a bond issue comes around for the expensive projects.
Finally, lawmakers gave some of their early thoughts on the proposed Summit Carbon and Navigator carbon dioxide pipelines, both of which travel through parts of Minnehaha County.
A strong contingent of landowners opposed to the projects came to the meeting, and Betty Oldenkamp, the moderator of the event, held a thick stack of question cards as she asked lawmakers to summarize their current thoughts on the pipelines, which promise to lower the carbon footprint of the ethanol industry and allow it to continue selling to a growing number of states looking for low-carbon fuels.
“There is the business aspect and the landowner's rights, because they own the land and is it right for the state to come in and declare eminent domain?” Zikmund said. “It’s going to be a big issue, we’ve been hit pretty hard from both sides, will be interesting to see what comes of it in the House.”
Balancing these two sides was the main thrust of most lawmaker’s feelings, although Aylward said he came down on the side of “property rights.”
The questions on a half-dozen pipeline-related bills were a few days premature, as the House State Affairs committee on Monday, Feb. 6 will be hearing a gauntlet of testimony on the highly charged issue.