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Virus lying low at Capitol, but still dominates agenda
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Virus lying low at Capitol, but still dominates agenda

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South Dakota lawmakers have survived to nearly the halfway mark in their 9-week legislative session without an outbreak of coronavirus infections, but that doesn't mean the coronavirus isn't on their minds. The pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of South Dakota law, from the judicial system to a state budget suddenly flush with money.

They are also preparing for the possibility that recreational marijuana will become legal in July, requiring an overhaul to banking, law enforcement and business licenses. With five weeks left in a legislative session that some lawmakers have described as “unprecedented,” here's a look at where things stand with pandemic laws, the state's budget, and marijuana:

CORONAVIRUS

Despite precautions like wearing masks noticeably lax in many parts of the Capitol, legislative leaders say they have not seen infections among lawmakers. The Senate has a rule requiring masks; in the House, it's merely encouraged, and many Republicans aren't masking. But so far, the session has not been derailed by the coronavirus.

“I think we are going to stay on track,” said Sen. Michael Deidrich, the assistant Republican leader. “We’re going to do our job in the amount of time that we committed to and get the people’s business done.”

He is pushing a bill through the Senate that would shield businesses, schools and hospitals from liability for coronavirus infections unless someone knowingly spread the virus. Proponents say the bill protects businesses, hospitals and schools that have already struggled during the pandemic, doing the best they can to stay open and protect people. But groups like the American Association of Retired Persons have opposed it, saying it would erode protections and the ability for people to sue for serious health violations. The bill already sailed through the House and is expected to have broad support next week from Republicans who dominate the Senate.

There are fewer than a dozen Democrats in the Capitol this year, but they brought a proposal for a statewide mask mandate in many public places. It was dismissed by a majority of Republicans, who said they prefer Gov. Kristi Noem's approach of relying on personal responsibility to prevent infections. A handful of Republicans proposed barring cities or counties from issuing health orders to private businesses.

Noem's strategy has brought criticism. While the state has seen dropping numbers of coronavirus infections in recent weeks, it is still recovering from a surge late last year that sent the rate of deaths per capita to the sixth-highest in the nation and the worst in the Midwest.

So far the vaccine rollout has gone smoothly, with almost 10% of the population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. As the state prepares to administer vaccines to a much larger group of people, Noem on Friday issued an order allowing dentists with experience giving shots to administer the vaccine.

Her administration is also pushing to have several temporary pandemic measures made permanent, including the ability to use court orders to force people with coronavirus infections to isolate, allowing physicians to practice medicine through video calls and remote technology, and allowing people with medical licenses from other states to practice in South Dakota.

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STATE BUDGET

Legislators are sitting on over $250 million in one-time funds, largely thanks to the state offsetting expenses tied to the coronavirus with federal relief funds. But just because there's plenty of money doesn't mean lawmakers won't be haggling over it.

“A lot of times it’s easier to have a legislative session with no money than when we have a lot of money,” said Sen. Troy Heinert, the Democratic leader in the Senate.

Noem, with the support of Senate Republicans, is pushing for the largest amount of money — $100 million — to be spent on expanding broadband internet access across the state. She has also proposed putting $50 million toward an endowment for college scholarships. Lawmakers are coming forward with their ideas, including ways to expand slaughterhouses and improve rural roads.

MARIJUANA

Many in the Capitol are awaiting word on a decision from a South Dakota circuit court judge on a lawsuit challenging a voter-passed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana. If the amendment survives the legal challenge from Noem's administration, as well as an appeal expected at the state Supreme Court, selling and possessing small amounts of marijuana will become legal in state law on July 1. Though many lawmakers are personally opposed to marijuana legalization, they are coming around to the fact they must address it.

“The outstanding litigation on that certainly has a psychological bearing on the whole process, but we’re not ignoring it in any way,” said Gary Cammack, the Senate Republican leader.

Legislators have formed a “cannabis caucus” dedicated to creating a framework for the pot industry, tackling everything from licensing to banking for the industry. Other proposals suggest removing marijuana-related convictions from background reports, as well as prohibiting its use in vehicles.

Noem opposes marijuana legalization as bad for the state and pushed for the legal challenge to overturn its legalization.

But Heinert, the Senate Democratic leader, pushed lawmakers to get moving on the issue.

“Whether you agree with marijuana or not, you know the voters passed it,” he said. “It’s our job to institute the program.”

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