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SD seeking Medicaid work requirement

PIERRE | South Dakota is going to ask the Trump administration to allow the state to require some Medicaid recipients to work to qualify for the government-funded health coverage for the poor, Gov. Dennis Daugaard said Tuesday in his State of the State address.

The change would apply to about 4,500 low-income, able-bodied parents who are not caring for a child under the age of 1, Daugaard told state lawmakers gathered for the first day of the 2018 legislative session. The governor proposed piloting the new requirement in Minnehaha and Pennington counties.

"Work is an important part of personal fulfillment," Daugaard said. "By making this adjustment to our Medicaid program, we can continue to help those who need it the most and start to connect those who can work with jobs that give them that sense of self-worth and accomplishment."

Daugaard said he has asked the state Department of Social Services to pursue the work requirement waiver. The average monthly Medicaid enrollment was roughly 120,000 people last state budget year.

Joan Alker, executive director at Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families, said low-income parents are not driving the costs of the Medicaid program.

"We're talking about the very, very poorest families in a state, and applying a work requirement to these parents, the majority of whom are women, is in my judgment counterproductive, it's fiscally inefficient, and it's just downright cruel," Alker said.

During the current legislative session, the Republican-controlled Legislature will make a new state budget and take up policy proposals on issues ranging from the state's ballot question system to the use of lakes on private land for recreation. Legislators will adjourn in late March.

Daugaard asked lawmakers to extend an expiring law that restored access to nearly 30 specific lakes for public recreation that was curtailed by a state Supreme Court decision. The rules were the product of a special legislative session last year on so-called nonmeandered waters. The governor's bill would move the law's June expiration date to 2021.

House Democratic leader Spencer Hawley said he supports the extension because too little time has passed to evaluate issues with the law.

"We need to extend this," he said. "We need to work with it."

Daugaard said he's also proposing legislation that would make South Dakota microbrewers more competitive with those in surrounding states. He noted that current law caps South Dakota craft brewers at 5,000 barrels of beer annually, compared to 60,000 in Montana, 50,000 in Wyoming and 25,000 in North Dakota.

The governor's proposal would increase the limit to 30,000 barrels per year.

The governor has made workforce development a key policy focus. He said South Dakota doesn't have enough workers in many skilled fields, which is a barrier to economic growth.

Officials are encouraging high schools to expand the availability of apprenticeships, internships or job shadowing during school, Daugaard said. And he's pushing a new law to create a professional licensure reciprocity compact with other states.

Daugaard looked back on his time in office during the final State of the State address of his second term, saying he's pleased with progress on boosting teacher pay and that revenue increases for road and bridge funding are "being put to good use." The 64-year-old Republican cannot run again this year because of term limits.

"I look forward to working hard with you, over this session and over this, my last year, to make South Dakota a better place than it is today," Daugaard said.

City to widen busy thoroughfare

A $1.5 million project to widen one of Rapid City’s main east-west thoroughfares from two and three lanes to five moved forward at the city’s Public Works Committee meeting Tuesday.

The committee unanimously authorized city staff to begin advertising for a project to widen a 1.2-mile stretch of Catron Boulevard from its intersection with U.S. Highway 16 to Nugget Gulch Road, just east of Sheridan Lake Road.

Currently, Catron Boulevard oscillates between two and three lanes in that section before opening into five lanes — two eastbound lanes, two westbound lanes and a center turning lane — as it approaches Nugget Gulch Road to the east and the Black Hills Corp. offices to the west.

City Project Engineer Todd Peckosh explained that the road was originally designed and graded for an eventual expansion to five lanes. Now, that eventuality had arrived.

“It’s just kind of logical that with all the development going on out there that we add that lane on now,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting.

Along with Black Hills Corp.’s $70 million, 200,000-square-foot building just southwest of the Catron Blvd-U.S. Highway 16 intersection is the 58-acre Buffalo Crossing development in the southeast corner. That lot already houses a Holiday Inn Express & Suites and will soon be neighbors with a mix of residential, hospitality, retail and health centers including Regional Health’s Advanced Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute.

A half-mile south of Buffalo Crossing lies The Meadows, a 160-unit luxury apartment complex currently under construction.

Bidding on the project will begin in February, Peckosh said, and construction should begin in March with a completion date sometime near summer’s end. Once the section is widened, the entire stretch will receive a fresh layer of asphalt and new street lighting.

Though unrelated to this project, the South Dakota Department of Transportation is planning a major overhaul of the Catron Blvd-U.S. Highway 16 intersection in the next 10 years.

Another roadwork project also took a step forward during Tuesday’s meeting when the committee approved an agreement for preliminary design work ahead of an estimated $2 million to $2.5 million reconstruction project of Deadwood Avenue.

An approximately 1.5-mile stretch of Deadwood Avenue from Interstate 90 to the border of Meade and Pennington counties will undergo major improvements including pavement rehabilitation, roadway grading, sanitary sewer main work, asphalt paving, drainage, traffic control improvements, striping and right-of-way acquisition.

“The pavement condition is in pretty poor shape through a lot of it,” Peckosh said of the road's current condition. Though it will remain a two-lane rural road, the pavement will be widened from about 20 feet to 30 feet once the work is completed.

A joint project with Pennington County, the sharp curve near the end of Rapid City limits and beginning of Pennington County limits will be straightened out. A “history of accidents” at that curve influenced the decision, Peckosh said.

Construction is expected to begin in 2019 with Pennington County paying for 33 percent of the project’s cost and the city picking up the rest of the tab.

Governor defends juvenile-justice reforms

Legislators who attempted to stop the auction of a Custer juvenile detention campus as part of a broader critique of juvenile-justice reforms were indirectly targeted Tuesday by Gov. Dennis Daugaard in his State of the State speech at the Capitol in Pierre.

“I know juvenile offenders can be difficult,” Daugaard said, “but we need to remain focused on what’s best for them. Locking up children because they’re difficult to deal with is not acceptable.”

Last week, the state accepted an auction bid of $2.34 million for the former STAR Academy campus near Custer. The sale of the campus to private owners who hope to convert it to a light-industrial business park is part of state government’s ongoing effort to keep more troubled children in their communities rather than committed to faraway facilities.

Those efforts were accelerated in 2015 with the Legislature’s passage and Daugaard’s signing of juvenile-justice reform legislation. Since then, some local school officials and law enforcement officials have complained that the burden and expense of dealing with troubled juveniles has been passed down to them.

A group of legislators, including several from the Black Hills, responded to the complaints with an unsuccessful attempt to stop the auction of the STAR campus. Some of those legislators hinted last week after attending the auction that they may still try to halt the sale.

Meanwhile, Gov. Daugaard's chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, said Tuesday in response to Journal questions that the governor has already given his required approval to the sale, but the closing of the sale could still take months while the terms of a contract-for-deed are finalized and several initial payments are collected from the buyers.

One legislator who was critical of the auction, Rep. Tim Goodwin, R-Rapid City, said by phone after Daugaard’s speech Tuesday that activism against the STAR auction seems to have waned in recent days. Goodwin said he now doubts anything can be done to stop the closing of the sale.

Daugaard, in his speech, invited fixes to juvenile-justice problems but seemed determined to repel any potential revolt against the 2015 reforms.

“I know we all hear concerns from law enforcement and school leaders concerning the juvenile reforms,” Daugaard said. “That’s why we made some of the changes we did last year. But when someone tells you the reforms aren’t working, we need to understand exactly what is the problem, and what policy change might address it. A broad brush is insufficient.”

On other Black Hills-specific topics, Daugaard said:

• Rapid City will host the 2018 annual meeting of the Western Governors Association, of which Daugaard is the chairman (the meeting will be June 25-27).

• Rapid City became a pilot site this month, along with Sioux Falls, Yankton and Brookings, for a high school program called Career Launch that will encourage the expanded availability of work-based educational experiences such as apprenticeships, internships and job-shadowing.

• The state is working on a sale of salvaged timber from the recent Legion Lake Fire that began in Custer State Park, where Daugaard said the work of firefighters and others to save homes and prevent injury and death was an example of "South Dakota at its best."

• The groundbreaking at the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility of the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, and the expansions of VRC Metal Systems and B9Creations in Rapid City, were among examples of South Dakota's economic development successes in 2017.

• Pennington County could be one of two sites, along with Minnehaha County, of a proposed pilot program that would use a potential waiver from the Trump administration to impose a work requirement on non-elderly, able-bodied adults who are enrolled in the federal-state Medicaid health insurance program for the poor.

Son charged with mother's murder in California

A man involved in a vehicle chase while transporting his mother’s body has been charged with murder in California, as well as a jail offense in South Dakota.

Tosten Walsh Lommen, 30, was charged in California’s Riverside County on Monday in the death of his mother, Michelle Walsh, according to court documents.

Authorities allege Walsh Lommen killed his mother “with deliberation and premeditation” sometime around Dec. 30. California investigators believe both were living in Walsh’s home in Palm Springs, located in Riverside County, when the crime occurred.

South Dakota troopers discovered her body in the back of the SUV Walsh Lommen was driving after he was arrested in a New Year’s Day high-speed chase on Interstate 90. The body was found wrapped in a blanket once the pursuit ended in Rapid City, local authorities said.

California police have searched the victim's home, which “revealed evidence of a homicide, such as bleach stains on the carpet and blood stains on the carpet,” according to a Palm Springs detective’s declaration in support of an arrest warrant for Walsh Lommen.

A preliminary autopsy, conducted in South Dakota, showed the 58-year-old woman died from strangulation, the document states.

Investigators believe Walsh was killed at her residence, Palm Springs Police Department spokesman Sgt. William Hutchinson said in an interview.

The police department sent officers to talk to Walsh Lommen, who has been detained at the Pennington County Jail on charges including aggravated eluding and driving under the influence. His bond is set at $2.5 million.

“Tosten was interviewed and he admitted to choking his mother,” Palm Springs Detective Steven Grissom’s court declaration reads. “He told me he freaked out and attempted to clean up the crime scene with bleach.”

Investigators believe he then drove to South Dakota, where troopers saw him driving over 100 mph around noon Jan. 1 and pursued him through Lawrence, Meade and Pennington counties. Hutchinson said he’s not yet aware whether Walsh Lommen has any links to the state.

The Superior Court of California approved an arrest warrant for Walsh Lommen on Monday, setting his bail at $1 million. His murder charge is punishable by up to life in prison, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office said.

On Tuesday, Walsh Lommen reappeared at the Pennington County Courthouse on a new local charge of possessing an unauthorized article in jail.

Jail officials said a correctional officer found a weapon — a “sharpened toothbrush” — Monday afternoon inside a cell that only Walsh Lommen occupied, states a sheriff’s deputy report obtained from court. The item was described as a jail-issued toothbrush “sharpened to a point on the handle end.”

Walsh Lommen apparently told the correctional officer he used it for cleaning his fingernails.

The latest charge is the most serious that he is facing in South Dakota, punishable by up to 25 years in prison. He is scheduled to return to court later this month.

Meanwhile, California authorities want to extradite Walsh Lommen so he can face the murder charge. Extradition proceedings will begin once his South Dakota charges have been resolved in some manner, John Hall, spokesman for the Riverside County prosecutor’s office, said in an interview.

Hall declined to discuss possible motives in Walsh’s killing.

File photo 

Walsh Lommen