PIERRE | The death penalty, health care for poor people and education reform will be among the top issues tackled by the South Dakota legislative session that opens Jan. 14, legislative leaders said.
Many of those issues are intertwined in the state budget, which means final decisions will not be made until lawmakers pass the next state budget as the session winds down in March.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard set the stage for the legislative session when he unveiled his proposed state budget in early December. He said more than $100 million available on a one-time basis, including some reserves and a windfall of unclaimed bank accounts and other property receipts, can be used to pay off debts and other obligations early. That would free up ongoing revenue to give 3 percent increases in state aid to school districts, reimbursements to heath care providers in the Medicaid program, and pay raises for state employees.
House Republican Leader David Lust of Rapid City said lawmakers will discuss whether 3 percent increases for those priorities are feasible and advisable.
"I still think there's a ways to go with the budget and how that will all shake out as far as what happens with the extra dollars we may have," Lust said.
House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said many lawmakers will seek to boost state aid to school districts by more than the governor recommended. He supports a legislative study committee's proposal to boost school aid by 3.8 percent to restore funding per student to where it was before budget cuts in 2011.
"I think that's affordable and probably the best we can do," Hunhoff said.
States also have the option under the national health care overhaul to expand Medicaid, the state-federal program that pays the medical bills of poor people. An expansion in South Dakota would cover an additional 48,000 people, but Daugaard has recommended against it because he doubts the federal government can meet its pledge to pay most of the cost.
Hunhoff said many lawmakers will try to expand Medicaid despite the governor's opposition. Legislators who are undecided on the issue need to meet hardworking people who will have no health insurance unless Medicaid is expanded, he said.
"We need to put faces to those statistics. I think that will make all the difference," Hunhoff said.
Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, has said he will seek to repeal the death penalty in South Dakota, a move Hunhoff said will get more support than people originally expected.
In addition, some lawmakers will seek to scrap or limit the Common Core standards being used in the state's K-12 schools. The math and English standards, adopted by nearly all states, were devised by the National Governors Association and chief education officers from states to raise expectations and make sure students nationwide are learning skills in the same grades. Opponents argue the standards could weaken education.
Lust said lawmakers likely will discuss whether changes need to be made in the way the Legislature operates. A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures recommended some changes after noting some lawmakers were dissatisfied with staff performance in writing bills.
One proposal might change the structure of the Legislature's Executive Board, a panel that handles legislative management issues during the months the Legislature is not in session.
Hunhoff said minority Democrats are open to proposed changes in legislative operations, but the best way to improve the Legislature would be for majority Republicans to vote independently of the governor's wishes.