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Terri Bruce

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Transgender man's death stops lawsuit against state of South Dakota

A federal lawsuit filed by a transgender man from Hermosa against the state of South Dakota and the director of human resources is set to be dismissed after the unexpected passing of its plaintiff, a state employee. 

Terri Bruce, 55, died on Dec. 2. Two days later, Chief Justice Jeffrey Viken of the U.S. District Court in Rapid City issued a 30-day stay on the proceedings. Both sides expect the lawsuit to be dismissed in January.

"We can't go forward without a plaintiff," ACLU South Dakota Attorney Courtney Bowie said. "This is really unfortunate because we felt really good about Terri's (Bruce) claim."

Bruce — an employee with the South Dakota State Historical Society Archaeological Research Center in Rapid City — had sued the state and Laurie Gill, commissioner of Human Resources, in federal court a year earlier alleging violation of his rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that the state's health care insurance policy, which denies coverage to procedures or drugs related to gender transformations, "deprives transgender employees of equal treatment." 

In May 2016, the company that manages the state employee health insurance plan, Health Management Partners, had denied pre-authorization for Bruce's chest reconstruction surgery, a procedure urged by a Rapid City doctor as "medically necessary." Bruce eventually appealed the denial to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which cleared the way for his lawsuit in 2017.

Lt. Steve McMillin of the Custer County Sheriff's Department confirmed Friday that Bruce committed suicide on Dec. 2. He said a law enforcement incident report was still being compiled.

Bruce was viewed as a strong advocate for transgender rights in South Dakota. In a 2016 contribution to the website Huffington Post, Bruce criticized House Bill 1008 that sought to restrict public school students' use of the bathroom to their birth sex.

"I am a proud fifth-generation South Dakotan, a descendant of a member of the very first state legislature, and I'm also transgender," Bruce wrote. "If this (bill) makes it to Governor (Dennis) Daugaard’s desk, I urge him to veto this bill that harms South Dakota’s children. No student deserves to be treated like a second-class citizen. History will show that this bill threatens to do more harm than good."

Gov. Daugaard ultimately vetoed the so-called bathroom bill, saying it did not "address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota."

In a statement provided to the Journal, ACLU of South Dakota said: “Terri Bruce was a passionate, determined, big-hearted champion for transgender South Dakotans. The ACLU of South Dakota was lucky enough to work alongside Terri for the past several years, and we were inspired by his determination to making this sometimes cruel place fairer and safer for transgender people."

In Bruce's amended complaint filed this summer, attorneys with the ACLU argued that the South Dakota State Employee Health Plan "lacks any rational basis and is grounded in sex stereotypes, discomfort with gender nonconformity, and moral disapproval of people who are transgender."

Bruce was born female but had begun hormone treatment in 2011 and had a state-issued birth certificate listing his gender as male. 

In the state's response to the amended complaint, Rapid City attorney Jerry Johnson had argued against viewing the surgery — mastectomy gynecomastia — as medically necessary to treat Bruce's gender dysphoria. The state also dismissed their decision as discriminatory.

"Title VII does cover gender nonconformity, but the courts disagree on what, in some instances, constitutes gender nonconformity," Johnson wrote in July.

In October, a federal jury in Wisconsin awarded two transgender state employees $750,000 after a federal judge found the state's ban on insuring sex-change procedures amounted to sexual discrimination. Both Bruce's attorneys and the state had filed for summary judgment this fall.

"Had Terri been born biologically male, he would've been entitled to the surgery he sought," Bowie of the ACLU told the Journal.

During the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Gov.-Elect Kristi Noem said she would sign legislation to assign students to bathrooms of their birth genders. However, earlier this month, Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch of Watertown, who introduced House Bill 1008 in 2016, said he would not introduce the same bill this upcoming legislative cycle.

Bruce had been employed with the state's archaeology research center since 2008.

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Fiscal analysis: Sports betting wouldn't bring big tax boost

SIOUX FALLS — A South Dakota ballot measure to legalize sports betting in Deadwood wouldn't be a huge moneymaker for casinos or bring in much tax revenue, according to a legislative financial analysis. But supporters say it would help keep the historic mining town competitive as a gambling destination.

The analysis, released this month by the Legislative Research Council, estimates that the constitutional amendment would result in roughly $2 million in casino revenues and about $185,000 in new tax collections for the budget year it takes effect. Deadwood gambling revenues were roughly $100 million in 2017.

Deadwood Gaming Association executive director Mike Rodman said supporters never thought allowing sports betting would have a major effect on tax collections. But he said it would be another amenity for Deadwood to attract more visitors and, hopefully, result in more stays at hotels and meals at restaurants.

"We certainly think that it is important that Deadwood maintain itself as a competitive gaming destination," Rodman said. "We need to have those same game types that other destinations have."

The group plans to ask state lawmakers to put the amendment on the 2020 ballot.

Republican Sen. Bob Ewing, whose district includes Deadwood, plans to sponsor the measure during the upcoming 2019 legislative session. He said putting the change on the ballot gives everyone an opportunity to vote on it.

House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, an opponent, has said he believes the measure will spur a "very heated discussion."

Rodman has said his association envisions that players would have to be physically at a casino to place a bet on a sporting event. The proposed constitutional amendment would give the Legislature the authority to implement the wagering in Deadwood and at tribal casinos. If sports betting gets voter's blessing in 2020, it could be available by July 2021.

The fiscal analysis found that of the roughly $185,000 in new tax revenues for state budget year 2022, most would go to the state general fund and into a tourism promotion fund.

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Rapid City's Kmart scheduled to be closed by March

The Kmart in north Rapid City is one of 80 stores that will be closed in 2019 by Sears Holding Corp., which made the announcement Friday.

Liquidation sales are expected to start in two weeks, according to a news release.

A manager contacted Friday afternoon at Rapid City's Kmart store at 1111 E. North St. said she could not confirm the store would be closed.

The list of closures released by Sears Holdings included Sears stores in Lincoln and Omaha in Nebraska and Bloomington, Minn., and a Kmart store in Rochester, Minn. Rapid City was the only location in South Dakota on the list.

The 80 stores are due to close by March. That's in addition to 182 stores already slated for closure, including 142 by the end of 2018 and 40 by February. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October, saying at the time it would close more than 20 percent of all stores, keeping open only its 500 most profitable locations.

In September, the Journal reported that local developer Hani Shafi of Dream Design International had purchased the Northgate Shopping Center, which is where Kmart is located. He said he planned to rejuvenate the 51-year-old shopping center that he acquired for more than $10 million.

Shafi also said that Kmart had a four-year lease on its 106,000-square-foot space. He was aware that the store could be on a future closure list.

"If they decide to move on, then we'll work with them on it," he said at the time.

Sears Holdings, which also runs Kmart, joins the list of retail brands taken over by hedge funds that collapsed under the weight of debt forced upon them.

The 130-year old retailer set a deadline of Friday for bids for its remaining stores to avert closing down completely.

Under hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert, Sears has bought time by spinning off stores and putting on the block the brands that had grown synonymous with the company, such as Craftsman.

The company's chairman and biggest shareholder, Lampert loaned out his own money and put together deals to keep the company afloat and to turn whatever profit he could for ESL hedge fund. Lampert and ESL have been trying to buy the rest of Sears for up to $4.6 billion in cash and stock.

But no official bid appeared to have emerged as of 2 p.m. Mountain Time on Friday. Sears declined to comment.

The retailer that began out as a mail-order catalog in the 1880s has been in a slow death spiral, hobbled by the Great Recession and then overwhelmed by rivals both down the street and across the internet.