Local legislators return to Deadwood to touch base with constituents

Courtesy photo

DEADWOOD — During the second of the two District 31 legislative crackerbarrels Reps. Mary Fitzgerald, R-St. Onge, and Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, as well as Sen. Tim Johns, R-Lead, answered questions submitted by audience members at the Deadwood Mountain Grand about some of the major issue being discussed in Pierre.

Moderated by Deadwood Mayor David Ruth Jr., the first questioned posed to the three legislators centered on Senate Bill 44.

Senate Bill 44 – An act to authorize, regulate, and tax wagering on sporting events within the city limits of Deadwood and provide a penalty for a violation thereof.

All three legislators are in favor of this bill; however, there is debate amongst lawmakers about whether the provisions of sports betting should be confined to the city limits of Deadwood, or expanded across the state.

“My position on gambling that I had said in campaigning, is I believe all gambling should be done in beautiful Deadwood, South Dakota,” Odenbach said. “I’m for destination gambling. They come here, they have their fun, they spend their money, they go home.”

Fitzgerald echoed Odenbach’s opinion of the bill.

“Deadwood is a beautiful, beautiful place and I think it’s a good idea,” she said.

Johns, however, said he supports the bill as written, but expects to see future legislation expanding the measures.

“I really do believe that you need to expand it some, simply for the fact that right now all these people from Sioux Falls are going over to Iowa and wagering,” he explained. “Why should

 we be losing all that income in this state?”

Workforce protection

The next question brought to the legislators centered on Gov. Kristi Noem’s $5 million advertising campaign to bring people from across the country to South Dakota during a worldwide pandemic.

“The employees of Deadwood are face-to-face with people from all over the country, they are also not a prioritized group to receive the COVID vaccine,” Ruth said, reading a question from the audience. “What will you do to protect the workforce in our community?”

Fitzgerald said she believes it should be up to individual establishments to make their own choices regarding COVID-19 restrictions.

“I do agree with some of the stance on it’s a personal freedom and that the governor has given us an opportunity to kind of protect ourselves and be responsible,” she said. “But I do think that when you go out in public and you go into a business you must wear a mask and it’s not only to protect yourself, but to protect other people.” Johns said the division of opinion even at the state legislature is a telling illustration of how polarizing the topic of COVID restrictions can be.

“Well you’re not going to see any legislation, frankly. Look at the House, they refuse to wear masks over there; the Senate, all of us wear a mask and respect the other members of the Senate,” Johns said.

“You talk about personal responsibility – my personal responsibility is to myself, but it’s also to everybody else that’s around me. I wish people would accept it (as) that.”

Odenbach said the governor’s policy of personal accountability and little government engagement has benefitted not only South Dakotans, but has made the state an attractive haven for certain freedoms.

“I met with some great Pennsylvanians yesterday who were just desperate to get here to be free, and I always ask that they make sure to leave their blue state voting where they came from and other than that I say you’re more then welcome to be here, and we’re glad to have you,” he said.

The will of the people

Next, the legislators were asked to spend some time discussing Initiated Measure 26, the legal struggle surrounding Amendment A, and House Bill 1100, which would delay implementing medical marijuana legalization until July 1, 2022.

Johns said he agreed in part with the judge’s ruling which declared Amendment A to be unconstitutional, but acknowledged that the discussion over recreational marijuana is far from over in South Dakota.

“It is an argument among the legal scholars whether it’s going to go into effect on July 1 or whether it was at the time … a mistake, recount it and certify (it). That’s a reality that’s not gone away folks,” he said.

In the meantime, however, lawmakers are working to progress the implementation of Initiated Measure 26, which will legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. That measure was voted in by the people with a more than 70% margin.

“I want to honor the wishes of the electorate, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t, frankly. I wasn’t voted in to make all decisions for you,” Johns said.

Odenbach concurred with Johns’ remark about honoring the wishes of the electorate, but cautioned that following the will of the people can sometimes brush against the rule of law.

“Pure democracy is two people in a life boat voting to throw the third overboard to conserve water,” Odenbach said. “We don’t have a pure democracy, we have a republic in this country based on a constitution and there are certain things you can and can’t do based on the rule of law. That being said, direct democratic action passed Amendment A and IM 26 by overwhelming margins and I acknowledge that.”

Odenbach agreed with the judge’s ruling and said he believes the Supreme Court will agree as well to throw out Amendment A as it violated the rule of law in the state. However, he said because IM 26 had not met any similar legal challenges, believes it is his and other lawmakers’ duty to legalize medical use marijuana in the smartest and safest way possible.

“It’s a significant challenge to implement a 95 section bill and do it right the first time,” he said. The solution, however with House Bill 1100 … is to say we’ve got to delay it a year so we can do it right.

Odenbach mentioned that as HB 1100 has made it’s way through the legislature, an amendment, which would provide for the decriminalization of up three ounces of medicinal marijuana could find it’s way into the bill.

“Philosophically I agree, I think it is about freedom, it is about people who are sick being able to get treatment and I’m going to try not to stand in the way of that, but yet be smart in how we do it,” he said.

Fitzgerald said she is personally opposed to legalizing marijuana in any form, but that opinion goes out the window when she’s asked the question as an elected official.

“I was reminded just the other evening by one of my friends just how upset I am when our representatives in Washington, D.C., don’t do what we want, so I’m definitely going to follow the will of the people,” she said.

Fitzgerald was the first legislator to introduce bills intended to work within the legalization of marijuana, House Bills 1060, and 1061.

“Those are basically to not allow smoking marijuana in a motor vehicle and setting an impairment level,” she explained.

Fitzgerald, who sits in on the governor’s marijuana group meetings, said she’s heard from many constituents that they would not be opposed to delaying medical marijuana legalization for a year if they would be able to possess and use a small amount in the meantime.

“I’m trying to get that message across in Pierre,” she said. “Some people are not concerned about having a dispensary right now and they said that they would grow their own marijuana right now or if we did have a place where they could purchase a small amount of marijuana now for their medical issues, that that would please them until we got everything else figured out.”

Fitzgerald asked that the audience participate in an impromptu hand-raising poll, who would support medical marijuana being legalized as of July 1, 2021, and who would rather have it delayed until July 1, 2022. The results were almost completely split down the middle.

“It’s about 50/50,” she said with a laugh. “That makes our decision hard.”

DENR and Department of Ag merger

The decision by Noem to merge the Department of Environment and Natural Resources with the Department of Agriculture has been met with criticism by both Johns and Odenbach. Both say that the two departments have differing mission statements and should be left to separately pursue those missions. Previously, however, Fitzgerald defended the merger saying in an earlier cracker barrel, “It saves approximately half a million dollars a year, and they plan on cross-training people to come in who do do water samples and all the testing. … It is a difficult decision … but I guess I have faith in the people that would be trained and receive the education that they have, that they would do a good job.” On Saturday, however, she said that she now opposed the merger despite the cost savings.

“I think it’s $500,000 we would save … by combining those, but really $500,000 isn’t that much money when you think about it so I would continue to vote ‘no’ on that, I think that those two departments need to remain separate,” she said.

Noem’s travel transparency

Recently Noem has faced scrutiny for her nation-wide travels throughout her time as governor. Critics say she her actions to campaign for former president Donald Trump did not represent any business on behalf of the people of South Dakota, therefore her use of a state-owned airplane in those travels was a misuse of state property and an abuse of her office. Defenders say she was presenting the state in her travels and use of the plane was justified. Additionally, House Bill 1089 would authorize the disclosure of protection and security expenditures for elected officials, which some say could harm the efficacy of some security measures.

Fitzgerald sits on the appropriations committee and as part of a proposal from the governor’s office for a new plane; she said she has reviewed flight logs from Noem’s trips abroad.

“I can tell you from seeing the flight logs, I’ve not seen anything where the governor has abused using any state resources for her own personal use,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said she would like to see those flight logs be released to the public to allay any notions to the contrary.

Johns said two Bills have come before the legislature dealing with the issues, and thus far, they haven’t gotten very far.

“They aren’t getting anywhere, so the legislature’s not supporting that concept, although I did vote for them,” he said.

Odenbach said he’s spoken to law enforcement about releasing the numbers of travel and security expenses, and was satisfied with the response he got.

“There answer to me … was at some level when you get too detailed you can let the bad guys, if you will, know just what the governor’s doing in order to safeguard her security as she’s travelling around,” he said.

Odenbach said he agrees that transparency is important, but believes the governor’s travels were completely justified as working for the benefit of South Dakota, and that the questions against those actions are a political statement by critics who are upset that she campaigned on former president Trump’s behalf.

“She’s done a whole lot more for South Dakota being a great ambassador for us than she ever could have being locked in her office in Pierre,” he said.

Senate Bill 177 – An act to revise the provisions of parental choice regarding compulsory school attendance and matters ancillary thereto.

For parents who choose to enroll their children in private schools or home schools, SB 177 addresses their children’s eligibility to participate in extra curricular activities.

Johns said any child who wishes to participate in extra curricular should be allowed to do so, but the bill takes away the academic requirements for a home or private schooled child to join those activities, which he says takes accountability away from the quality of the education they receive.

“There’s no verification that they’re getting education,” Johns said. “When the COVID hit, I think it was about 30% of the kids from Lead just quit doing anything, and I think that’s going to be a problem for us, it’s going to manifest itself some place in the future.”

Odenbach, who co-sponsored the bill, said the way education occurs has changed drastically over the years, and giving the parents the freedom to choose to home school their children shouldn’t hinder the child’s freedom to participate in extracurricular.

“If you want to be a parent to provide a great home school education to your kids, you can do it, you can do a great job, and that’s your right, and you pay taxes just like everybody else and if you want your kids to go participate in band or soccer or whatever, I’m of the opinion that you should be free to do so,” he said.

Fitzgerald agreed with Odenbach and said she believes a parent who chooses to homeschool their child has already shown a dedication to educating their child well.

“They love their children, and their children are the most important thing to them. So I think it’s really important to those parents that they educate their children well,” she said “And I think they do a good job”

House Bill 1217 – An act to promote continued fairness in women’s sports.

HB 1217 would prohibit participants in school-sanctioned sports from participating on teams designated for genders other than their determined sex at birth.

Odenbach said although he may have co-sponsored the bill, he wasn’t completely clear on the specifics of it, but is in favor of it.

“Say Sioux Falls Roosevelt does this, within one year, a trans person will have all the school records for girls’ sports,” he said. “At what point do we as leaders just say, ‘thus far have you come, no further shall you go, this is preposterous.’ That’s where I sand on it, and I’m happy to rise or fall with that.”

Odenbach said he doesn’t want anyone to be ostracized for being transgender, but the movement for transgender rights has become counter to its own purpose.

“I don’t agree with this agenda, I think it goes too far,” he said. “I feel for these folks, in my opinion they have some issues that they’re dealing with … A lot of folks in these movements that were often started to stop bullying have themselves become the bullies, ‘agree with me or you’ll be canceled,’ and I stand against that and I will fight against it all that time.”

Fitzgerald said Rhonda Milstead, R-Hartford, who brought the bill forth doesn’t consider it a transgender bill at all and neither does she.

“A former athlete myself, a mother of two girls that were extremely great athletes, I just think a male has an unfair advantage against a female and that’s the way that I look at it,” she said.

She pointed to the differences between physiological make up and body type as the determining factor to support the bill.

“I just think that it’s unfair that we would allow this to happen in our schools and in our sports events.”

Johns said we would most like support the bill, but acknowledged that the world is become much less cut and dry in regards to the athletic ability of the sexes.

“You know we have a lot of girls that are playing football these days,” he said. “Times are changing and I think sometime we have to accept that there changing, but this probably isn’t the time.”

To view a video of the cracker barrel in its entirety, visit the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.

For a full list of all the bills currently being discussed at the legislative session, visit www.sdlegislature.gov/Session/Bills/44.

To contact Fitzgerald directly call 641-2045 or (605) 773-3851, or email Mary.Fitzgerald@sdlegislature.gov

To contact Johns directly call 722-3189, (605) 773-3821 or 717-2889, or email Timothy.Johns@sdlegislature.gov

To contact Odenbach directly call (605) 773-3851 or 642-2622, or email Scott.Odenbach@sdlegislature.gov.

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