Banning abortions that take place specifically due to a Down syndrome diagnosis;
Investing $40 million into college scholarships so students can be matched with high-demand career opportunities;
Extending broadband internet access to 135,000 South Dakotans who lack it;
Removing “government red tape in health care.”
These are some of the key goals Gov. Kristi Noem discussed during her State of the State address to the Legislature at the State Capitol in Pierre on Tuesday. The 96th legislative session began an hour prior to Noem’s address.
“All of us in this room, who work for them, respect the rights of our people to live their lives,” Noem said.
Noem said for the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has remained open. She said this is unlike nearly every other state in the country, and said as long as she remains governor, it will stay that way. She said South Dakota opted not to base any of its decisions on fear.
“We made different choices than virtually any other state over the past year. To be fair, I never once thought the decisions we were making in South Dakota during the pandemic would be unique. But other states based a lot of their decisions on fear and emotion, and now they’re seeing the results of that. In South Dakota, we do not make policy out of fear. We prepare for the worst, but always remain optimistic that the best is yet to come,” Noem said.
And the best is coming soon, Noem said.
“I am excited to report a light at the end of the tunnel with regard to our fight against COVID-19. South Dakota is leading the nation in disbursing the COVID vaccine. In just over a month, tens of thousands of people across the state have received their first dose. This is a testament to the incredible work the team at the Department of Health and all our medical professionals are doing,” she said.
As a result of remaining open, the state’s finances are in good shape as compared with the rest of the country — Noem said ongoing general fund revenues are up by tens of millions of dollars through December as compared to last fiscal year.
Noem called on non-South Dakotans to “come join us” and move to the state.
“One of my chief priorities as governor is to grow South Dakota. That is why you hear me inviting those who cherish and value our way of life to come join us. South Dakota is the perfect place to raise your family, grow your business, and live your life as you see fit. My administration continues to do everything in its power to help in this effort,” Noem said.
Noem discussed the state’s developments in key areas over the last year for the bulk of her address. The one constant through each section was the importance of family and strengthening the family unit.
“Today, more than ever, it is important we work to strengthen families. I am committed to being a family-first governor – fighting to strengthen the family unit and preserve the values South Dakotans have long embraced,” Noem said.
Economic DevelopmentDuring the last year, the state assisted in a myriad of projects that will result in over $2.8 billion in capital investment across the state, such as a $200 million project for a new Amazon distribution center in Sioux Falls and more recently, a $500 million project for a new food production facility by CJ Foods and Schwan’s. All of the projects are expected to create over 2,100 new jobs.
Noem said economic development opportunities like these provide opportunities for families as well as communities to grow, and for young people to start their careers in the state and stay to raise their own families.
Abortion BanNoem said one of her priorities for session this year is to pass legislation banning the abortion of children due to a Down syndrome diagnosis.
She introduced the Fite and Duffy families, from Platte and Wisconsin, respectively, who were all present at the address.
“Cody Fite and Valentina Duffy both have Down syndrome. God blessed these beautiful children with an additional chromosome. Their gorgeous smiles, distinct personalities, and that vibrancy you see before you are all gifts from God. For those who have had the privilege of knowing someone with Down syndrome, you know that person ends up being a gift to all of us,” Noem said.
Noem said in some European countries, fewer children are being born with Down syndrome because those children are aborted, and said “we should all be appalled by this” as South Dakotans and human beings.
She said she looks forward to the U.S. Supreme Court bans all abortions, but until then, “I am asking the South Dakota Legislature to pass a law that bans the abortion of a preborn child, just because that child is diagnosed with Down syndrome,” Noem said.
“Let’s make South Dakota a symbol of hope, justice, and love for children like Cody and Valentina. With the help of several pro-life groups across the state, my team will present legislation for your consideration and swift passage,” Noem said to applause and a standing ovation from the Republican-dominated Legislature.
EducationGood education starts with parents in the home, Noem said, and the move to remote learning due to COVID made that more apparent. It’s the state’s duty, then, to find solutions that will empower parents to help their children find success, she believes.
The main way Noem wants to do this is by improving civic education — making sure students can see the importance of civic engagement up close, having “robust” classroom discussions, and strengthening critical thinking skills. She said she asked her administration to create instructional materials and classroom resources about the country’s founding and history, as well as state history.
“Through all of this, our common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world,” Noem said. “With this knowledge as a foundational building block, every South Dakotan can then chart their own path in the future.”
As for higher education, Noem discussed several scholarship opportunities, such as the Build Dakota Scholarship. During the next five years, she said the state will invest around $40 million into the scholarship so students can be matched with high-demand career opportunities.
Recently, the state announced the creation of the PREMIER Scholarship, the first need-based scholarship endowment for the state. T. Denny Sanford and PREMIER are giving a total of $100 million to the scholarship, and Noem asked the legislature to allocate $50 million more in one-time funds.
“The PREMIER Scholarship requires that students live and work in South Dakota for three years after graduation. Otherwise, the scholarship turns into a loan. The endowment for this critical scholarship fund needs $200 million to be self-sustaining into the future. Denny and PREMIER are getting us halfway there. Your action will get the fund to $150 million dollars. Together, let’s get it done,” Noem said.
Broadband and RelocationExpanding broadband internet access statewide is another priority of Noem’s. There are around 135,000 South Dakotans who do not have high-speed broadband access, she said.
“Even the most remote communities across our state should be provided the tools they need to be connected. Thriving communities from border to border will yield much better results for our state and our families, rather than concentrated growth in just two cities,” she said.
Noem is asking for the Legislature to invest in funding broadband expansion, which along with industry funding and federal grant money, will be enough to complete the project.
“Success would mean our rural communities would have the opportunity to grow, and families would have the chance to stay together,” Noem said.
Broadband internet access allows people to work from home — working where they live, rather than living where they work, she said.
“People with big city salaries are moving to small-town South Dakota. They enjoy the lower cost of living and end up spending their money in our communities. They believe in the freedom that South Dakota has to offer,” Noem said. “My hope is that we can work together to get our state connected, so we can set up this generation and the next for success, no matter where they want to live.”
And people are responding to South Dakota’s message of personal freedom: new home construction in the state is 1.5 times greater than the national average, and construction employment is up 10% as compared to last year, Noem said.
Tourism and RecreationEven if they’re not moving here, thousands more people came to South Dakota in 2020 to visit its national parks, outperforming almost every other state in the nation. For example, Custer State Park had over 2 million visitors this year for the first time.
“Nature and the outdoors provided our families an escape from the pandemic. Because South Dakota remained open and didn’t lock down, more Americans from out of state came to enjoy our natural spaces too,” Noem said.
The tourism department will build on the momentum for 2021 by creating a new strategic plan for the next several years, which will include increasing promotion of the state in new markets and targeting key demographics as well as improving equestrian and rodeo facilities and enhancing tribal tourism.
“Every visitor we welcome to our state has an impact that resonates. Their visits help support good jobs and lifelong careers for South Dakotans. Their spending benefits our small businesses. And the tax revenue they generate goes right back into our communities and helps make this state the best place to live in America,” Noem said.
Hunting and fishing have also been successful. Anecdotally, the pheasant population is “through the roof” this year, Noem said.
In 2020, the state had an increase in youth and first-time hunters and sold a record number of youth-mentored hunting licenses, as well as increases in youth combo licenses and resident and non-resident fishing licenses. To get more people involved in the outdoors at an early age, Noem is requesting the Legislature adopt simpler licensing requirements for kids under age 18.
“Getting our youth to put down the Xbox and pick up the tackle box has been a priority of mine for many years,” Noem said.
AgricultureNoem also addressed the challenges facing the state’s biggest industry. Blizzards and floods in 2019 prevented almost four million of 19 million acres from being planted, causing a 24% decrease in corn production and 36% loss of soybeans from 2018, Noem said.
However, she said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting corn production increasing by 31% and is estimating yields to increase to record highs. Soybean production is expected to grow by 53%.
“This is very good news, because our agricultural industry is critically important. Our farmers and producers not only feed our families, but also serve as a catalyst for our economy,” Noem said.
In July, several reforms standardizing and streamlining the permit process took effect, resulting in a more competitive and attractive environment for agricultural businesses, Noem said. After that, the state saw 23 new agricultural projects creating 320 new jobs.
Noem proposed several agricultural investments in her budget address to help bolster the industry: investment in the new Dakota Events Complex, creation of a program to give farmers more marketing opportunity for South Dakota meat products, and the merging of the Departments of Agriculture and Energy and Natural Resources.
“Each of these items will help reinvigorate our number one industry – and all the families it serves — for many years to come,” Noem said.
Noem recognized medical professionals in the state and the sacrifices they have made in the fight against COVID-19. She shared the story of Pierre’s Dr. Darrell Plumage at the Avantara assisted living facility, and how his and his team’s dedication helped 70% of infected patients survive the virus.
“What these medical professionals have done over the last 9 months to battle this virus is nothing short of remarkable,” Noem said.
Telehealth, and the expansion of telehealth services, has proved even more important during the pandemic. In the state Medicaid program alone, people used telehealth services more than 70,000 times since March, Noem said. She asked the legislature to support resolutions to make more flexibility with telehealth permanent.
“In 2021, we should build on telehealth advancements and continue to find ways to remove government red tape in health care,” she said.
Noem also addressed the importance of mental health in addition to physical health. The 605 Strong initiative began by the Department of Health in February helped connect South Dakotans with trained crisis counselors.
“This initiative proved critical in the face of a global pandemic. In 2020, we have seen suicides decline,” Noem said.
She also addressed the state’s ongoing efforts to curtail substance abuse. The third annual state tribal meth summit was held virtually earlier this year in partnership with the Departments of Tribal Relations and Social Services.
“These summits are a bedrock in bringing state and tribal health care providers and leaders together. The state stands ready to work with our tribes and all South Dakota communities to combat substance abuse,” Noem said.
Noem closed out her address by lauding the military. South Dakota was ranked number one in the country for veterans to live and work in this year.
Initiatives for veterans this year included: expanding the tuition program for veterans to include technical colleges; increasing property tax exemptions for veterans with disabilities; having tax exemption for paraplegic and amputee veterans; increasing the number of beds at the Hot Springs Veterans Home; and breaking ground on the first-ever State Veterans Cemetery in Sioux Falls.
“These veterans are special members of our state and are like family to so many in their communities,” Noem said.
Noem also commended the members of the South Dakota National Guard.
“The Guard’s response to the pandemic is now the longest-sustained, state-supported mission in the history of the Guard. Our Soldiers and Airmen have provided COVID-19 support since March,” she said.
She gave a special shout out to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Moore, who commands the Guard’s 152nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. Under him, the Pierre-based 152nd was recognized as the most outstanding Army National Guard battalion in America for the second time in three years.
Noem also recognized the Air Force at Ellsworth Air Force Base and reiterated her budgetary request that the Legislature fund the Liberty Wellness Center project at the Base.
After giving an overview of the state’s progress throughout the past year, Noem reiterated the importance of strengthening families.
“Strengthening families, no matter what they look like, is a key element to every decision I make as governor, and I am committed to keeping family at the center of my policy decisions. The family is the cradle of civil society. Strong families create strong communities. And strong communities will produce the strongest state in the nation,” she said.
Noem closed out her speech by addressing her own family and thanking them for their love and support.
“The reason I am in public service is to make South Dakota a better place. A better place to live, to do business, and to raise a family. One of the reasons I care so deeply about these issues is because I want these things for my family and every other family. I know that’s why you serve as well,” Noem said to the legislators in closing. “I look forward to working with each of you and all of South Dakota’s leaders to improve our state for today and for the next generation.”