Gov. Kristi Noem delivered the State of the State address on Tuesday, describing the state’s economy as “strong” and noting rising population growth, but mainly focusing on the social issues that will be debated through legislation brought up in the coming weeks at the state Capitol.

The nearly hour-long speech was punctuated by several standing ovations from the joint legislative body, in which the Republicans hold a 94-11 majority this session. Noem received arguably her longest ovation when she announced that she would bring forward legislation to ban abortions in South Dakota after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

“Today, I am asking all of you to protect the heartbeats of these unborn children,” Noem said.

Noem went on to promote efforts to keep critical race theory out of South Dakota classrooms and recognized former presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, who watched Noem’s speech from the House gallery, for his work on the 1776 Action's pledge. That pledge, which Noem signed, reads in part that “(t)eaching children to hate their country and each other is immoral and deeply harmful to our society and must be stopped.”

Last March, Noem signed a pair of executive orders requiring participants in sanctioned high school and college sports to be “females, based on their biological sex, as reflected on their birth certificate issued at the time of birth,” drawing the ire of transgender South Dakotans and their supporters. On Tuesday, Noem said she hopes the Legislature will support Senate Bill 46, which she said would be the strongest such law in the nation.

“Congress passed Title IX years ago to guarantee that girls have a level playing field on which they can succeed, to ensure their liberty to achieve,” Noem said. “They can win high school championships, maybe earn scholarships, maybe even go on to play professional sports. We need to protect the freedom of our young girls to go out there and to do it.”

Senate Bill 46 contains a similar “biological sex” provision to Noem’s 2021 executive orders, but adds that an athlete who undergoes “direct or indirect harm” as part of a violation of the prospective law has “private cause of action for injunctive relief and any other equitable relief available under law.”

Democrats in both houses of the Legislature were quick to condemn Noem’s address, as House Minority Leader Jamie Smith, D-Dist. 15, did in a Tuesday press release.

“Governor Noem’s speech was an opportunity to bring South Dakotans together, but today we heard a partisan speech that divides,” Smith said. “We need a government that works for all South Dakotans. There are opportunities for us to work together. Areas of agreement include workforce housing, job training, and childcare just to name a few. Instead of paying attention to the science and encouraging South Dakotans to get vaccinated and boosted, Kristi Noem refuses to lead. I encourage people to get vaccinated and wear a mask when appropriate. Together we can end this pandemic.”

Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Dist. 26, said the Governor’s Office is focusing too much on social issues.

“The Governor is the executive, and we are supposed to be proposing legislation and doing those legislative duties,” Heinert said. “Those kinds of things shouldn’t be coming out of the Governor’s Office.”

Heinert also criticized Noem’s proposal to address school prayer in House Bill 1015, which would mandate a moment of silence of up to one minute prior to school days to allow students to “engage in voluntary prayer, reflection, meditation, or other quiet, respectful activity.” Prior to mentioning that legislation in Tuesday’s speech, Noem said that “in our public schools, prayer is absent. It’s forbidden.”

“I think as long as there’s been spelling tests there’s already prayer in schools, I just don’t think it should be mandated from the state of South Dakota,” Heinert said.

Heinert also said he is happy to hear the state is doing well economically, but wished Noem had recognized the assistance South Dakota received from the federal government during the past year.

“But I was a little disheartened that, to me it kind of sounded like her version is that the pandemic is over,” Heinert said. “And when you look at press reports and how many people are being diagnosed with COVID, and some of them seriously, we still have a long way to go.”

Every county in the state is experiencing “high” community spread of COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning according to the South Dakota Department of Health, with 22,743 active cases and 336 hospitalizations.

State Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Dist. 24, expressed enthusiasm for Noem’s speech and expressed hope for a pair of bills that would bring funding for projects at existing Pierre landmarks.

“The Governor’s State of the State address always sets the tone for the legislative session to come,” Mortenson said. “I was excited to hear her put an emphasis on veteran issues, hopefully to include the Capitol Lake project, and also an emphasis on teaching history.”

House Bill 1013, if passed, would appropriate $3 million in federal fund expenditure authority to the state Bureau of Administration for development of a master plan for Capitol Lake and its veteran memorials. The area includes the Flaming Fountain Memorial, a constantly flowing fountain from an artesian well topped with a natural gas flame lit in the early 1900s in “perpetual tribute” to lives lost in service. The flame could not be seen when the Capital Journal reported in July on the efforts of local veteran’s associations to raise awareness of its damage over the years.

Mortenson also said Pierre’s Cultural Heritage Center is one of the state’s best tools for teaching history. House Bill 1047, if passed, would appropriate $8.8 million in general funding and $3.3 million in “other fund expenditure authority” to modernize and renovate the Cultural Heritage Center.

“I am hopeful that the legislators in the room, like me, believe that both of those projects are going to be worthy,” Mortenson said.

Michael Woodel | 605-224-7301 ext. 131

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