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SD Capitol notebook: Democrats accuse Republicans of abusing system, assigning committees to ensure bill outcomes

PIERRE -- Legislative committees rushed to clear their calendars this week before the bell tolled, with Friday, Feb. 22, having been the deadline for bills to leave committee on their side of origin.

Amid the hours-long hearings and rush came controversy: Several Democratic-led bills failed to pass committees this week, while other Republican-led bills have been reincarnated after having already failed.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said at a Friday news conference that some bills have been assigned to committees in order to ensure their passage or failure in what he called an abuse of the legislative system.

House Minority Whip Rep. Erin Healy, D-Sioux Falls, echoed this. She said her House Bill 1175, which would have established a council to study pre-kindergarten programs in the state, should have been sent to the House Education committee but was instead sent to State Affairs. The committee killed the bill by a 9-2 vote, saying it could result in a publicly funded statewide preschool system, and ultimately a “socialist agenda.”

Also sent to State Affairs was House Bill 1236, a bill designed to close a loophole that allowed South Dakota's major health insurance companies to drop coverage last month of Applied Behavior Analysis treatment for children on the autism spectrum. Healy contended that this bill should have been sent to the House Health and Human Services committee.

Prime sponsor of HB 1236 Rep. Ryan Cwach, D-Yankton, said that "politics got in the way of that committee meeting" and called the committee's 7-4 vote to kill the bill "difficult and heartbreaking."

Meanwhile, a Republican-led House bill to require transgender high school athletes to compete according to their "birth sex" was revived after a nearly identical bill on the Senate side was already killed early in the session.

The House Health and Human Services committee tied 6-6 on a vote to pass House Bill 1225 on Thursday. House Minority Leader Rep. Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls, was absent from the vote due to a scheduling conflict, which he said the committee chair knew about when he scheduled the vote. The committee ultimately voted 8-4 to send the bill to the House floor without a recommendation -- a rare occurrence in the Capitol.

Here are some of the other major developments this week in Pierre:

Science education

The House Education committee on Wednesday passed House Bill 1270, which would allow teachers to teach students about "all sides" of scientific theories like evolution and climate change, according to one of the bill's proponents Sen. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City.

Jensen said by allowing teachers to show the weaknesses of scientific theories, students will be encouraged to think critically.

He said HB 1270 would allow students to learn "how to think, not just what to think.

"To do less is simply indoctrination."

The bill now moves on to consideration on the House floor.

Texting while driving

A bill that would have outlawed cell phone use while driving failed to pass the Senate on Thursday with a 17-17 tie. House Bill 1088 would have made it a primary offense to use an electronic device while driving for purposes other than making a call or using a GPS.

The House passed the bill on Wednesday, Feb. 6. After a motion to reconsider the bill in the Senate on Friday failed, the bill is officially dead.

Absentee voting

The House on Thursday narrowly passed a bill that would reduce South Dakotans' time to vote via absentee ballot from 46 days to 32. The bill was opposed by the Secretary of State's office, as well as several auditors throughout the state.

Opponents said shortening the window makes it more difficult to vote, while the state should be working toward make voting easier. They also noted that the bill could disproportionately disenfranchise voters who live on rural Native American reservations.

Proponents say that much information on candidates and ballot measures emerge in the final weeks leading up to an election, and shortening the window will help voters make more informed decisions.

House Bill 1178 passed by a 36-33 vote. It now moves onto the Senate.

Vape taxes

The House Health and Human Services committee on Tuesday passed House Bill 1209, which would add vape products, such as electronic cigarettes, to the state's existing tobacco tax of 35 percent wholesale price.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network supports the bill, with South Dakota Government Relations Director David Benson calling it "a step toward reducing the public health epidemic we are facing with the increased use of these products by kids."

According to the Action Network, more than 17 percent of South Dakota high school students use vape products.

The bill now moves onto the House for consideration.