Social issues grabbing 'lots of air' in state legislative session
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Social issues grabbing 'lots of air' in state legislative session

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South Dakota Legislature

PIERRE | There's one thing Republicans and Democrats in South Dakota agree on this legislative session: Social issues are getting a lot of attention.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has seen a string of bills favored by social conservatives in the first three weeks of the legislative session, including proposals to ban gender-change medical treatments for children under 16 as well as commercial surrogacy agents, and that would stop the state from recognizing gay marriage.

Republicans hold every statewide office and a super-majority in the Legislature. State laws mandate that every bill gets a hearing.

“It's unfortunate that it seems like the social issues just do grab a lot of air,” said House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, a Platte Republican. “It's just the nature of the subject.”

But hot-topic issues can wear legislators out and take energy from other issues that are important but less controversial, said Qualm, who has introduced a bill that would stop schools and colleges from requiring students to get vaccinations. Some of the bills this session may represent a “backlash” to the liberal leanings of popular culture, he said.

House Minority Leader Jamie Smith, a Sioux Falls Democrat, said upcoming state elections could be compelling some legislators to propose bills that touch on social issues that are important to their constituents.

Democrats would prefer to focus on expanding health care, preschool education and mental health services in the state, he said.

“There are so many things that we could be talking about and these are the things that are sucking up our time,” Smith said.

Qualm pointed to other issues Republicans are working on such as proposals to legalize industrial hemp and create online voter registration.

Democrats have expressed frustration with the speed at which the bills are passing through the Legislature. Several addressing social issues have been passed by the House and are being considered by the Senate. The bill to ban gender-change treatments for children will be considered by a Senate committee Monday morning.

Sen. Craig Kennedy, a Yankton Democrat, said national groups see the state as a “test state” for new proposals that get national attention. Conservative lawmakers in other states have introduced similar proposals in the wake of South Dakota's bill that addresses gender-change treatments for children.

Smith said the proposals threaten Gov. Kristi Noem's initiative to attract new business to the state. He said they send a message that South Dakota is not welcoming.

The Republican governor has said she has “concerns” with the bill banning gender-change treatments for kids, but has not indicated if she will support or oppose it.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican, said the social issues may distract from other topics, but that he was proud of the “open process” in the Legislature. Republicans and Democrats both have a chance to get their issues heard before a committee.

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