With a standing-room crowd lobbyists and lawmakers watching in amusement, six South Dakota lawmakers met Wednesday morning to discuss the wording of a nonbinding resolution opposing the federal Affordable Care Act.
It was, longtime lobbyists and staff said, possibly the first time a nonbinding resolution had ever been referred to a conference committee in the history of the South Dakota Legislature.
Outspoken Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, had originally proposed a resolution urging Congress to “repeal and defund” the Affordable Care Act. But his resolution also accused South Dakota leaders, including Gov. Dennis Daugaard, of being complicit in the enactment of the controversial law despite Daugaard’s stated opposition and resistance to an expansion of Medicaid.
"Numerous bills have been defeated that sought to nullify and fight this controversial act, while numerous bills were passed that helped enact it and implement it here in the state of South Dakota," Nelson said Wednesday.
In 2011, Daugaard’s administration successfully sought laws updating South Dakota’s insurance regulations to comply with changes in the Affordable Care Act. The state has also received federal grants to study potential implementation of the act’s health insurance exchanges, which Daugaard ultimately left to the federal government to run instead.
But after the House passed Nelson’s resolution, the Senate amended it to remove mentions of where South Dakota had gone along with the act’s provisions. When the resolution came back to the House, Nelson requested a conference committee to resolve the differences between the chambers — and to many lawmakers’ surprise was granted one.
When the committee met on Wednesday morning, it included a key Nelson ally, Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs — but also Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, who is currently suing Nelson over an alleged election law violation.
In the crowd were lobbyists and legislators, including House Speaker Brian Gosch, Speaker Pro Tempore Dean Wink and Assistant Majority Leader Justin Cronin. Gosch, who has clashed with Nelson, was even eating popcorn as he watched. Also there were Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, who is running against Nelson for U.S. Senate, and Rep. Tim Rounds, R-Pierre, whose brother Mike is also in the Senate race.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, asked the conference committee to kill Nelson’s resolution entirely.
"While our colleagues are in the halls of the Capitol putting the finishing touches on their bills, lobbying for their pet projects or trying to protect the taxpayers in their district… we’re in a committee room talking about a resolution with no force of law that is more about scorecards and postcards than about legislating for the people of South Dakota," Tieszen said.
Tieszen said the Senate had made “a mistake” to amend Nelson’s resolution.
"I don’t think the Senate is prepared to make another mistake," he said.
Sen. Billie Sutton, D-Burke, commended Nelson’s “passion” on the subject but said it was time to “move on.”
Nelson said public opposition to the Affordable Care Act in South Dakota meant this was an issue worth the Legislature’s time.
Conference committee rules require support from at least two of the three members from each chamber. That meant Nelson and Russell blocked Tieszen’s motion to kill the resolution. Tieszen, Lederman and the two Democrats on the committee in turn blocked Nelson’s amendment restoring most of his original language. Finally, lawmakers agreed to dissolve without agreement. The issue now returns to the House and Senate, who are expected to kill the resolution for good.