The 2023 legislative session is over, but lawmakers are already preparing for and researching issues, including county funding, ahead of the 2024 session.
The South Dakota Legislature will conduct two summer studies this year, one focusing on long-term care sustainability and the other on county funding and mandated services, the Executive Board decided on Monday, March 27.
The summer studies allow legislators to learn about specific issues and explore solutions ahead of the next session, said Senate President Pro Tempore and Executive Board Vice Chair Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown.
“We can anticipate what the Legislature is going to need to deal with in the next session and see if we can help people work toward solutions,” Schoenbeck said.
The summer studies will feature a handful of meetings held throughout the summer to further explore the issues. Legislative Research Council staff will analyze data and conduct research to better understand the topics.
The executive board, which includes leadership from the House and Senate, whittled the studies down from over 15 proposals to the selected two. Study proposal topics ranged from child care to nuclear power to Native American child welfare to South Dakota’s surface water quality.
Long-term care won’t be ‘one size fits all’
Sustainable long term care was a hot topic ahead of the 2023 legislative session, and legislators already planned to establish a long term care summer study before the session began.
Fifteen South Dakota nursing homes have closed over five years, and seven have closed in the last year, according to the South Dakota Health Care Association. That spells trouble as South Dakota faces an aging population and a surge in long term care needs as baby boomers near the end of their lives over the next two decades.
While lawmakers did manage to increase funding this session for targeted Medicaid providers, such as nursing homes, to a 100% reimbursement rate for the year, that doesn’t address the long-term needs of the industry.
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The summer study will examine the state’s current long term care situation — including demographics, funding, staffing, reimbursement rates and geography — and evaluate potential solutions for affordable care.
Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, and Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, R-Sioux Falls, will serve as chair and vice chair of the study, respectively.
Rehfeldt told reporters at the Republican leadership conference on March 9 that she’s looking forward to exploring different ideas to support the industry as a whole, but that “it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer.”
“I do think there’s still work to be done. I think that’s something we can all recognize,” Rehfeldt said.
County sustainability could mean state partnerships
The financial sustainability of counties was also an issue discussed during the session, though the suggested solutions — regionalizing jail funding capacity, using state dollars to help with jail construction, allowing counties to charge sales taxes, providing property tax relief through reimbursement checks and more — were struck down.
The summer study will focus on regionalization and consolidation, how the state can partner with counties to make mandated services more affordable, and an analysis of county funding models and revenues, said House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, in the executive board meeting.
Sen. Jim Mehlhaff, R-Pierre, recommended the study to the executive board earlier this session as a member of the Senate Local Government Committee.
“The state’s got to get its foot off the throat of the counties to broaden their tax base or there’s not going to be any meaningful tax relief,” Mehlhaff said.
Brown County has spent $4.5 million on a building it hopes can serve as a new regional jail since the jail in Aberdeen is almost always above capacity. County officials lobbied the Legislature for financial help during this year’s session, but got none. Other counties shared the same fate even after a legislative summer study about regional jails last year.
The topic was discussed at last week’s Brown County Commission meeting as a decision needs to made in the near future about what the county will do about a regional jail. Commissioner Mike Wiese is among those who are discouraged because he knows the need is not going away.
Rep. Roger Chase, R-Huron, and former Beadle County commissioner, and Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish, who is on the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners Executive Board, will serve as the study’s chair and vice chair, respectively.
Why didn’t child care make the cut?
Schoenbeck met with several community and business leaders across South Dakota earlier this year with Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, R-Madison. In a majority of those meetings, the number one issue leaders discussed was day care.
“I would say half of the time there was spent discussing day care,” Schoenbeck said.
The issue has been widely covered by state and national media, and it gained attention during Gov. Kristi Noem’s reelection campaign. But very little legislation was introduced during the session on the topic.
Sen. Tim Reed, R-Brookings, said he will head up an informal task force on child care. He’ll gather a small group of legislators with stakeholders such as economic development professionals and child care industry workers to discuss the issue.
Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, suggested during the board meeting that the state should supplement child care with government funds.
But House Speaker and Executive Board Chair Hugh Bartels, R-Watertown, is hopeful the informal group will help break the issue down into manageable pieces for the Legislature to tackle later on.
“There’s no consensus in the day care industry on how to solve it other than more money,” Bartels said. “It’s hard to do a summer study like that because it’s such a broad deal to narrow down.”
The task force will not be as structured, resourced or publicized as the summer studies — and recommendations from the task force will not carry as much weight as recommendations made by a summer study. But Reed is hopeful the group will be effective.
Reed emphasized that the study will not focus on subsidizing or expanding public education to pre-kindergarten.
“Everybody that I’ve talked to knows that we have to take a look at child care,” Reed said. “We’re talking about child care just to make sure there are opportunities for working parents.”
The Executive Board’s next meeting will be held on April 20 to appoint legislative members to interim study committees.
Scott Waltman of The Aberdeen Insider contributed to this report.