State GOP lawmakers wait to use COVID-19 funds

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Top South Dakota Republican lawmakers on Wednesday said they would rather wait until the legislative session in January to decide how to use most of the federal coronavirus aid the state has received.

Following a conference call with Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday night, Republican legislative leaders said they were following the current negotiations in Congress over the new coronavirus aid package and hoping that Congress would extend the deadline beyond the end of the year to allocate most of the $1.25 billion the state has received. If that happens, there may not be a special session this fall, said House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, a Platte Republican.

Qualm cautioned that it may be a couple of weeks before Congress finalizes the rules for spending the aid, saying, “There’s still some things up in the air.”

The state has spent about $75 million of the aid so far, with most of that going toward unemployment benefits. As leaders figure out what to do with roughly a billion dollars of what’s left, the governor told lawmakers that if Congress extends the deadline, there would likely be no need for a special session, according to state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican.

Republicans said the Legislature needs time to make sure the money has the most impact. It would allow legislative committees to vet the allocations, rather than deciding in a rushed special session. Senate Majority Leader Kris Langer, a Republican from Dell Rapids, said she is hoping Congress also allows state governments to put some of the federal funding towards covering losses in revenue.

“That’s what we’re looking for — as much flexibility as we can have,” she said.

But Democrats, who hold a minority in the Legislature, argued that waiting to spend the money until next year would be too late for people and businesses struggling from the pandemic. Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission, called for legislators to convene as early as September, creating a task force of convening committees.

Although schools and businesses have been able to tap other federal funds during the pandemic, Heinert said there’s many people who “fell through the cracks.”

Speaker Steve Haugaard, a Republican from Sioux Falls, said he plans to spend the next months hearing from constituents to understand how the money can best be used. He said that as increased unemployment benefits expire and people cut back on their spending, the economic impact will become more clear.

“There is information that needs to be developed right now so that decisions can be made sooner rather than later,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Health reported 149 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. It was the largest daily increase since May, but the Department of Health said that the report covered the results from a 30-hour time period rather than the usual 24-hour period due to a delay in reporting data. Health officials reported the results of 2,223 tests, which is higher than normal.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by about 9, an increase of roughly 16%.

Health officials also reported that an outbreak at Camp Judson, a Christian summer camp in Keystone, has resulted in 32 people testing positive for COVID-19.

The state also reported six new deaths, bringing the statewide tally to 129. Almost 90% of the 8,641 people who have been confirmed to have COVID-19 have recovered, while there are 903 people with active cases.

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