PIERRE | The fate of a South Dakota industrial-hemp bill with strong support in the Republican-controlled Legislature despite GOP Gov. Kristi Noem's disapproval will remain a mystery a little longer after debate scheduled for this week was postponed at the administration's request.
The measure to allow hemp cultivation in South Dakota was set for a Senate panel vote on Tuesday. The test would have decided whether the bill moved a step away from Noem's desk just days after she publicly asked again that lawmakers hold off this year.
But Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Gary Cammack said he deferred the bill hearing because the governor's office needed more time to put together a fiscal analysis. He said it may instead be debated on Feb. 28.
"I want to make sure that all sides of an issue can be heard," said Cammack, a bill co-sponsor. "I always reserve the right to, with new information, to change my mind. But if I was to vote right now I would vote to bring it forward."
The governor's office asked for the hearing to be postponed so that more information, including a fiscal note, could be put together and given to lawmakers, according to Noem spokeswoman Kristin Wileman.
The delay comes amid a public rift over the measure between supportive legislators, including top Republicans, and Noem, who has asked lawmakers during two press conferences to set aside the legislation this session — though she's stopped short of threatening a veto. Just days after Noem first made the first request, House lawmakers voted 65-2 to advance the bill to the Senate.
Supporters said there's an industry ready in South Dakota to start processing hemp products. Jarrod Otta, plant manager for Glanbia Nutritionals in Sioux Falls, told a House committee this month that the company has been contacted by two "very large customers" to process hemp protein.
House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, a co-sponsor, said getting a fiscal analysis is "prudent," but he doubted Noem's requests would affect senators' vote on the bill. The Republican from Platte has said previously that he would support overriding a potential veto from Noem but didn't think it would come to that.
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Noem last week revived her appeal, saying South Dakota isn't ready for industrial hemp. The state doesn't have funds budgeted for areas including establishing a licensing program and having inspectors, she said. The governor also raised public-safety worries, arguing the plant looks like marijuana and drug dogs will tip off on hemp like its recreational cousin.
"I believe if we move ahead with industrial hemp and we aren't prepared with it from a regulatory standpoint, from an enforcement standpoint, and if we don't have the equipment or the dollars to do this correctly, that we will be opening the door to allowing marijuana to be legalized in the state of South Dakota," Noem said.
Noem also said Thursday that there's equipment at the state lab that could test industrial hemp, but it can't indicate THC levels, so it wouldn't be helpful in determining if hemp has violated acceptable standards. The bill defines industrial hemp as containing no more than 0.3 percent THC.
The governor on Friday tweeted photos of the state health lab's drug locker "bursting at the seams." Legalizing the crop would flood the lab with more tests and strain law enforcement, she said. Noem tweeted again Sunday about hemp, questioning why South Dakota would move forward with something that could "jeopardize law enforcement, expand our drug epidemic, or threaten the livelihood of existing crops?"
Democratic Rep. Oren Lesmeister, the bill's sponsor, disputed Noem's claim that hemp looks exactly like marijuana, telling the Argus Leader that "standing in a field, there's a vast difference."
The 2018 federal farm bill legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp. In South Dakota, supporters anticipate that hemp planting wouldn't happen until 2020 under the bill.
The measure would require prospective growers to get a Department of Agriculture license and pass state and federal background checks.
Applicants who have been convicted of a felony drug crime in the previous 10 years would be disqualified. The bill would allow Agriculture Department employees to enter areas where hemp is grown, stored and processed to take samples and perform inspections.