PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem defended her coronavirus response Tuesday in a budget address to lawmakers, laying out proposals to spend millions in excess funds after federal aid bolstered the state’s budget.
The Republican governor, whose name has circulated as a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, compared both the state’s virus situation and financial outlook to states such as Illinois, New Jersey and New York.
While South Dakota is currently suffering through one of the worst virus outbreaks in the nation, the state’s economy and budget forecast are rosier. A combination of using federal aid to offset state expenses tied to the pandemic and a $19 million budget surplus allows Noem to propose over $230 million in state-funded projects, along with a 2.4% increase in funding for teachers, state employees and government-funded medical providers.
“When I travel across the state and talk to people and I travel around the country, people often congratulate us on how strong South Dakota’s financial position is compared to the rest of the nation,” Noem said.
Though she has spoken and raised money across the country, Noem has said she is not interested in running for president.
The final budget and revenue forecast must be ironed out by the Legislature, which will convene in January.
Noem opened her speech with a moment of silence for the 1,111 people who have died from COVID-19, which Noem described as a “horrible virus.” The state currently has the nation’s ninth-highest number of deaths per capita, with roughly one out of every 800 people dying from COVID-19. The death rate has been particularly devastating in the last two weeks as the state reported the nation’s highest number of deaths per capita.
Although the state has seen declining rates of new cases and hospitalizations, it is still dealing with the nation’s second-highest number of new cases per capita over the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.
But Noem, who has eschewed government-enforced lockdowns and mask mandates, claimed that the virus does not seem to be any worse in states that have taken aggressive measures to prevent infections from spreading, pointing to places like California and New Jersey that have recent spikes in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
However, some of the statistics the governor used for her comparison have been called into question. For example, Noem pin-pointed Dec. 2 as a day when Illinois reported a record-number of COVID-19 deaths despite having a mask mandate in place. But even on that day, South Dakota’s number of deaths per capita was more than double that of Illinois.
Noem also claimed that Illinois’ active case count is currently higher per capita than South Dakota’s ever was, but the data she used to make that claim does not line up with some of the most-respected pandemic datasets from Johns Hopkins and the COVID Tracking Project. South Dakota has reported more cases per capita than Illinois in the last week, according to Johns Hopkins.
Ian Fury, the governor’s spokesman, said she used a count of active cases in Illinois from a website called Worldometer, which says it aggregates data from “thousands of sources” but does not list a specific source for its Illinois active case count. The website claims that Illinois has 356,433 active coronavirus infections, but that’s over three times the number of people who have tested positive in the last two weeks, according Johns Hopkins data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guides that people with moderate COVID-19 cases are infectious no longer than 10 days after symptoms begin.
However, Noem appeared on firm ground in asserting that her state’s budget outlook appeared healthier than many other states, which have faced the prospect of deep cuts amid the pandemic.
“South Dakota will not be raising taxes on our citizens, or our businesses,” she said. “We will not be borrowing billions of dollars to cover our budget shortfalls, and we won’t be looking to Congress to send us more stimulus money.”
The governor said the billions of federal aid that have flowed into the state were a one-time windfall, which she said means the state should be “prudent and conservative” moving forward. Her proposals for spending over $230 million centered around infrastructure, with a $100 million proposal to expand broadband internet access to rural areas taking up the largest chunk of money. She argued the investments would serve South Dakotans for years to come.
Some other notable proposals included a new livestock complex at the state fairgrounds, information technology upgrades and a new state airplane.
Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat who holds one of his party’s only seats on the legislative committee that handles the budget, said he would have liked the governor to “focus more on people” than infrastructure improvements. He pointed out that many people are hurting from the pandemic, whether from job losses, medical bills, or the stresses of providing essential services while the virus has run rampant.
Many Republicans agree the state is hurting, though they have been concerned with businesses hard-hit by the pandemic. Rep. Chris Karr, the Sioux Falls Republican who will chair the House Committee on Appropriations, said lawmakers will have a difficult task shaping the budget because the influx of federal relief is temporary.
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