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$50 million water legislation falls two votes short on final day


$50 million water legislation falls two votes short on final day

Mar 10, 2023 | 3:09 pm ET
By Seth Tupper
$50 million water legislation falls two votes short on final day
State Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, testifies on a bill during a legislative committee hearing Feb. 24, 2023, at the Capitol in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

Amid all the excitement over the passage of a sales-tax reduction on the final day of regular legislative business Thursday, a bill to devote $50 million of federal money to water projects quietly died.

Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, had hoped her water legislation, Senate Bill 156, would pass before legislators left the Capitol. They won’t be back in Pierre until March 27, a day reserved to consider bills vetoed by the governor.

“It was really disappointing not just for me, but for a whole community in the state that was cheering for a big investment in water,” Duhamel said Friday.

In its original form, the legislation would have allocated $100 million for engineering, design and other pre-construction activities associated with a proposed water pipeline from the Missouri River to western South Dakota. The funding source is South Dakota’s unspent money from the American Rescue Plan Act, which is an economic stimulus law passed by Congress and President Joe Biden in 2021.

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Duhamel’s bill had a long and difficult journey through the legislative process, beginning with its first committee hearing in mid-February and continuing all the way to Thursday. Along the way, the bill was amended to make the $100 million available as grants to any qualifying water project.

The bill eventually passed both legislative chambers, but amendments put the House and Senate versions of the bill in conflict. Legislative leaders appointed a committee – which included Duhamel – to work out the differences.

The committee voted 6-0 to change the allocation to $50 million. The Senate voted 30-3 on Thursday to accept that amendment.

“I had every indication that was acceptable to the House,” Duhamel said. “Unfortunately, when it hit the floor, it fell two votes short of the two-thirds required.”

A two-thirds majority is required for bills that appropriate money. In the House, that means 47 members. The vote on Thursday afternoon was 45-25.

Duhamel’s bill was opposed by the state Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Department representatives said much of the $600 million in federal money allocated to water and wastewater projects last year is unspent, because of the time-consuming nature of designing big projects and getting bids from contractors. Department representatives said they currently lack the staff, time and specific project plans they’d need to accommodate another big chunk of federal money.

Duhamel said the extra money is needed not only for the proposed western South Dakota pipeline, but also for several other major pipeline proposals in eastern South Dakota. She and other supporters reminded lawmakers that the federal money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by 2026.

In the conference committee and on the House floor Thursday, opponents said the money should not be appropriated until state water officials are ready.

Duhamel said Friday she’ll press state water officials to come up with plans for the money.

“I hope to hold their feet to the fire, to see what their plan is and to make sure it goes to water,” she said.