S.D., feds negotiating over possible Medicaid expansion

South Dakota officials have begun informal negotiations with the federal government over a potential Medicaid expansion in the Mount Rushmore State.

Just over a month after Gov. Dennis Daugaard asked for flexibility to cover just some of the people the Affordable Care Act wants states to add to the Medicaid program, officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have reached out to learn more about what Daugaard wants to do.

"The fact that they’re asking questions at all means that they’re considering it," said Daugaard aide Tony Venhuizen, who cautioned that the discussions were "preliminary" and involved lower-level staff.

Discussions have also involved Democratic leaders in the Legislature. House Minority Leader Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, said South Dakota Democrats have reached out to their contacts in President Barack Obama’s administration to encourage them to take Daugaard’s outreach seriously.

"We’re getting word from Washington that they respect our moving deadline, and they want to work with us, and work to get the best possible proposal on the table," said Hunhoff. "Hopefully that will happen within days here."

So far Republican legislative leaders haven’t yet been contacted by federal officials, but Senate Majority Leader Tim Rave said he expects conversations to happen later this week.

South Dakota has less than two weeks left in its regular legislative session. Daugaard had asked for speedy consideration of South Dakota’s request given its short legislative session.

The federal Affordable Care Act calls on states to expand the Medicaid program to cover everyone earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $15,521 for an individual or $31,721 for a family of four. Under the law, the federal government would pay the entire cost of the expansion until 2016, and 90 percent or more after that.

But people earning more than 100 percent of the poverty line are eligible for subsidized private insurance on the Affordable Care Act’s online exchanges. So Daugaard asked if South Dakota could expand Medicaid to cover just people up to 100 percent of poverty — $11,670 for an individual or $23,850 for a family of four.

Negotiations with federal officials haven’t yet advanced to whether those specifics might be acceptable.

"We don’t know yet if the feds will accept what the governor is proposing, or if they’ll have some kind of counter-offer," said Venhuizen.

Last week, Daugaard said he could expand Medicaid without prior authorization from lawmakers. That could be necessary even with an expedited approval process from the federal government.

It’s possible South Dakota could reach an informal Medicaid deal before its session ends on March 14. But a formal waiver request would take weeks more.

"He’ll want to have a discussion with legislative leaders about what would need to happen and how that would work," Venhuizen said of Daugaard.

Rave said Republican legislators would be open to Medicaid expansion on the right terms. But Rave was skeptical of getting anything done before the Legislature leaves town on March 14.

"It’s just awfully late," Rave said. "We need to stop and be a little thoughtful here. If it takes calling a special session in a month or two months or whatever… there’s certainly nothing wrong with calling a special session to get that right."

Term limits group launches mailer campaign: The group U.S. Term Limits, which advocates for term limits on legislators, announced today that it’s sending postcards to constituents of Sen. Tim Rave and Sen. Dan Lederman, urging them to oppose the constitutional amendment that would extend South Dakota’s legislative term limits from eight years to 12.
You can view the Lederman postcard here (PDF). 
The postcard makes reference to a poll the group (apparently) conducted by the group in 2009 of South Dakota voters. You can read the poll questions here. The language of the questions is, by and large, phrased to push the reader towards term limit support. (The first question, for example, doesn’t ask what people feel about term limits, or making them longer. It asks “how angry” they are about that.)

Term limits group launches mailer campaign: The group U.S. Term Limits, which advocates for term limits on legislators, announced today that it’s sending postcards to constituents of Sen. Tim Rave and Sen. Dan Lederman, urging them to oppose the constitutional amendment that would extend South Dakota’s legislative term limits from eight years to 12.

You can view the Lederman postcard here (PDF). 

The postcard makes reference to a poll the group (apparently) conducted by the group in 2009 of South Dakota voters. You can read the poll questions here. The language of the questions is, by and large, phrased to push the reader towards term limit support. (The first question, for example, doesn’t ask what people feel about term limits, or making them longer. It asks “how angry” they are about that.)

Committee: ease student activity bans for drug use

Convictions for illegal drug use shouldn’t keep students out of activities as long as they currently do, a legislative committee voted Tuesday.

Students right now are banned from sports and activities for 60 school days for their first drug offense if they complete treatment. A second offense bans the student from participating in school activities for life.

Sen. Tim Rave, R-Baltic, is proposing changing the first-offense penalty to 30 calendar days, and the second offense to 60 days. Subsequent offenses would still carry a permanent ban.

But Rave would also add a clause requiring all suspensions to make a student miss at least two events, even if their suspension unfolds during a season when they’re not involved in any activities.

"The current law is driving kids out of activities, when in fact we should want them in activities," said Bob Sittig, the Baltic School District superintendent. "We want students to have some consequences for their actions, and we don’t want to appear to be soft on crime… but we want to keep them in the activities."

Districts can still impose tougher penalties for drug use if they want.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to send the bill, Senate Bill 113, to the full Senate for consideration.

As originally passed more than a decade ago, the law carried a one-year ban on the first offense and a permanent ban for a second. In 2006, the Legislature let students with a first offense lower their penalty to 60 school days — though only after overriding a veto from then-Gov. Mike Rounds, who said reducing the penalty would cause “an increase in the number of students using drugs after their sport season is over.”

Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, said Rave’s bill was in the spirit of last year’s criminal justice reform, which encouraged alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenses.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee approved a measure making it slightly more difficult for property owners to move their land into another school district. In considering whether the property was too valuable to let go, schools would under this measure be able to consider the impact on property value of expected future development.

A third bill, stripping professional licenses from people who obtained them with false or fraudulent degrees, was postponed until Thursday after Sen. Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, raised questions about how it should be worded.

That bill was inspired by an Argus Leader article last year about a psychologist whose doctorate was from an unaccredited foreign university.

School boundary change law drops

Last month, I wrote about the attempt by some school districts — principally those surrounding Sioux Falls — to make it harder for people to switch school districts. Their concern was that large amounts of their property valuation (and thus revenue sources) would leave. The current laws capping the property leaving at 2 percent of the old district’s value don’t protect them, the schools argued, because land that may be a cornfield and low-value today could be a housing development and high-value a few years down the road.

They wanted to change the rule so that 2 percent cap would consider future value of the land as well as its present value.

Read about it here.

Today, the bill doing that dropped. It’s HB1071, and you can read it here. Rep. Herman Otten of Tea — one of the primarily affected areas — is the prime sponsor. Senate Majority Leader Tim Rave, R-Baltic, is the lead Senate sponsor.

Chamber breakfast quiet with pre-screened questions

One possible reason for the quiet, news-less legislative Q&A held this morning by the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce became evident about two-thirds of the way through, when Sen. Tim Rave livened things up slightly by wandering around the room during his response and bantering with the moderator, Mark Lee of the Chamber.

But before answering Lee’s question about the budget, Rave cracked a joke about the morning’s format.

"I’m actually a little uncomfortable this morning," Rave said. "For 12 years it’s been a constant in my life in January: I come to this breakfast, and Jack Marsh grills me with questions — that aren’t given to me in advance."

Indeed, Lee had told each lawmaker what he’d ask them before the event.

"The way we approached this event was to provide as much meaningful information to legislators in advance as we could, to give them a sense of the topic we were going to ask them about," Lee said near the end. "We wanted them to be well-prepared, so you could be well-informed. It may not be as fun, Sen. Rave, but we’ll fix that next year. We’re happy to do it."

Two recently appointed lawmakers, David Anderson and Kris Langer, spent most of their question time saying little more than that they wanted to learn a lot about being a legislator. Others focused their responses on providing basic explanations of issues, rather than making the case for why they adopted their particular positions.

The event was a stark contrast to last year, when Marsh, a former Argus Leader editor, put legislators on the spot about hot-button issues, including the then-current controversy about calls from the Minnehaha County Republican Party to pull out of the Chamber’s legislative coffees. Marsh asked follow-up questions, and put everyone on the spot by asking lawmakers who supported the legislative coffee revolt to stand.

It’s unclear why Marsh, who was present today, was not moderating.

As a journalist, sources constantly ask for me to give them questions in advance so they can prepare responses. I always refuse, at most telling them in the vaguest possible manner the topic I’ll ask about. That’s because reporters aren’t looking for rehearsed answers. We want the truth, not spin, and that comes best from spontaneity.

Rave replaces Olson as Senate majority leader

A state senator from Baltic was elected Saturday to be the new majority leader in the South Dakota Senate.

Sen. Tim Rave, a Republican, replaced Sen. Russell Olson of Wentworth in the top spot after Olson resigned for a new job.

For Rave, it was the third high-profile leadership position in his decade-plus in the Legislature. He spent two years as Speaker of the House before being elected to the Senate, and then spent two more years as chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party.

"I’m really humbled to be elected by my peers to be their voice," Rave said. "It’s pretty special."

Rave said he didn’t have any particular policy goals as majority leader.

"My job is to make sure that our voice is heard, both to the executive branch and to the public, to get our message out and make sure we speak as uniformly as we can," Rave said.

Sen. Jason Frerichs, the Wilmot Democrat who is the Senate minority leader, said he’s worked well with Rave in the past.

"We served together. He was Speaker and I was a freshman member in the House," Frerichs said. "At that time he was real fair to me, and I expect that to continue in his new role."

Rave holds an unusually vulnerable seat for a party leader. He won reelection last year with just 51.2 percent of the vote over former legislator Dan Ahlers, a Democrat. Olson and his predecessor, Dave Knudson of Sioux Falls, regularly won 55 percent or more of the vote.

After Rave was elected majority leader at the Senate Republicans’ meeting in Pierre, the Republicans then elected Sen. Dan Lederman of Dakota Dunes to replace Rave as assistant majority leader.

Sen. Reid Holien of Watertown was chosen to replace Lederman as a party whip.

The other two Senate Republican whips are Sen. Larry Rhoden of Union Center and Sen. Ryan Maher of Isabel.

Amendment would add ‘trigger’ to economic development plan

Economic development spending should be put on hold when the state experiences budget trouble, legislative leaders announced Wednesday.

In a proposed amendment to the “Building South Dakota” economic development package, funding for the program would be dependent on the state also giving normal yearly increases to K-12 education, Medicaid providers and state employees.

If those programs were funded regularly, then millions of dollars every year would be deposited in the Building South Dakota fund to pay for career education, affordable housing and infrastructure projects around the state.

If the state didn’t pay those increases, or cut those programs, then the money set aside from the state’s contractor’s excise tax and Unclaimed Property fund would instead go to the state’s general fund.

This “trigger” helped bring Gov. Dennis Daugaard on board with the economic development plan, assembled by a group of bipartisan legislators.

“The main issue or concern from the governor’s office was protecting the general fund, to be able to ensure that we can adequately provide for education, Medicaid, state salary policy, and those things,” said Pat Costello, Daugaard’s economic development director, who endorsed the Building South Dakota program Wednesday. “When we got comfortable with that, the governor could support the bill.”

Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg and the prime architect of the proposal, said it wasn’t a tough concession for legislators to make.

“My guess is we as a Legislature probably would have done that on our own (without the trigger),” Brown said.

Sen. Tim Rave, R-Baltic, said the trigger is good policy.

“The trigger mechanism makes it very clear that we will fund our priorities first. I think that makes total sense,” Rave said.

The trigger was part of a package of changes introduced Wednesday for Building South Dakota.

The bill is expected to pass out of a conference committee of House and Senate members Thursday morning, after the amendment is tweaked to address legislator concerns.

Brown also proposed seeding Building South Dakota with $7 million in one-time money. The program’s funding stream won’t start in earnest until 2015. The $7 million will let the state start spending money on education, housing, roads and other areas right away.

Another change in the proposal is more specifics about the education funding it contains. For the next three years, the workforce education subfund — which gets 30 percent of the total Building South Dakota fund — will pay for English language education in K-12 schools. That will cost about $1.9 million for the first year, and around $1.3 million in future years.

The next $1.5 million in the fund will go to high schools to pay for career and technical education. Any money in the workforce education subfund after that will be given as bonuses for K-12 education.

The legislative committee will meet at 9 a.m. to amend and approve Building South Dakota. It would then head to both the House and Senate to be adopted.

So far it seems to be maintaining its bipartisan support. No one testified against the package on Wednesday, or at its prior hearing before a House committee. It faced some opposition on the House floor, primarily from legislators who argued it should be split into multiple bills, but a majority rejected those challenges

Members of both parties praised Building South Dakota Wednesday.

“I’m hopeful we can iron out these details,” said Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot. “It almost feels like the 11th hour, but it is not. We still have time left in the session to work through these problems.”

Rave agreed.

“It’s just a great comprehensive piece of legislation,” he said. “I think it’s a great compromise bill that really addresses a lot of areas of need.”

School sentinels bill passes committee 5-4

A proposal to let schools arm volunteer “sentinels” to protect against threats is on its way to the South Dakota Senate.

The school sentinels bill, House Bill 1087, passed a key Senate committee 5-4 Friday, and needs only approval from the Senate to head to Gov. Dennis Daugaard to be signed into law.

Under the proposal, school boards could vote to arm sentinels provided local law enforcement approved and the sentinels underwent training with the state.

Rural schools, located far from local law enforcement and without police resource officers, want the proposal’s flexibility, advocates said.

“If we think we’re immune in South Dakota from school violence, we should probably think again,” said Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City. “Our local school officials and local school boards need to be making a decision about the security of their schools.”

Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, and other supporters emphasized the local control.

“For the schools that do not want ever to have anybody armed… they should want this bill,” Craig said. “It is this bill that guarantees that they make the decision to never have anyone armed.”

But what Sen. Larry Lucas called “the (key) issue of the 2013 legislative session” has plenty of opponents. Most major school groups testified in opposition, saying the sentinels program was risky and unwanted.

Jeff Marlette, a general in the South Dakota National Guard and the superintendent of the New Underwood School District, lamented that South Dakotans would now ask if “our state has gotten so bad and so dangerous and so unsafe that we must now attend school in an armed fortress.”

Lobbyists for the state’s school boards and school administrators proposed an alternative, to set up a task force studying school security. If that task force recommended school sentinels, they said, they could support it, but saw the current proposal as too rushed.

“This amendment would give you another option to talk about school safety,” said Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “Let’s put a task force together that’s made up of these stakeholders and bring recommendations so school boards could have options to look at.”

But the committee rejected that amendment, with members questioning whether such a task force would produce new mandates and objecting to the last-minute nature of the proposal.

The Senate committee did make several changes to the proposal, notably removing a section added in the House that kept decisions about the sentinels program secret.

Tieszen, the prime sponsor of the bill, endorsed that change.

“This must be a publicly made decision,” Tieszen said.

Rep. Hal Wick, R-Sioux Falls, supports keeping the decision private. He said it would keep would-be attackers in the dark about which schools were and were not defended, and thus provide more protection to everyone.

Once a district has adopted a sentinels program, decisions about it — such as which people were armed — could be made behind closed doors.

Another change might be coming in the full Senate. Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, said he’s interested in specifying that voters can refer a decision to create a sentinels program to a public election.

Senate passage isn’t assured, with many lawmakers skeptical. Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot, suggested the sentinels bill wasn’t necessary because volunteers could be deputized by their local sheriff to defend the school.

Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, said he likes the concept but has too many unanswered questions.

“If we’re going to do something like this, I need to feel more than reasonably confident that we’ve covered all our bases,” Brown said.

But supporters said the sentinels program is both needed and well-thought-out.

“I don’t think anyone has promoted this as the ultimate solution to the problem we face,” said Rhoden. “But it is a step.”

Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, said it was a good proposal that keeps decisions with local government.

“What I like about this bill is its permissive nature,” Lederman said. “This bill will maximize local control.”

Sen. Russell Olson, R-Wentworth, lambasted schools for opposing the local option.

“Do you just want the softballs? Do you just want the easy decisions?” he asked school representatives. “When it gets tough should it come back to the Legislature? Make up your mind.”

The Senate must take action on the sentinels bill by March 5, though it has yet to be scheduled for debate. Because the Senate has amended the version passed by the House earlier this month, the House would then get another vote, to either approve the Senate version or try to negotiate a compromise.

Craig said House members will likely be divided on whether removing the secrecy provision is a good move.

If the Legislature approves the sentinels bill, it will head to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who likes the concept and is studying the proposal’s specific details.

How will Senate State Affairs vote on ‘sentinels’?

Earlier, I speculated about what the decision to send the school sentinels bill to the State Affairs committee instead of the Education committee meant for its fate.

Yesterday, I did something better: I checked on each of the members to see what they thought about it.

A few of them were on the record with opinions about the bill; those who weren’t, I called.

You can read more about the state of the sentinels bill here.

Here’s where things stand now with the Senate State Affairs Committee:

  • Brown: Undecided. Doesn’t have a problem with the “concept” but is “struggling” with a few components of the bill.
  • Frerichs: Doesn’t ”support the bill in its current form,” would need “to change it pretty drastically” to vote for it.
  • Johnston: Has called the sentinels bill premature, saying other discussions of school security needs to come first.
  • Lederman: A sponsor of the bill, has spoken critically of making schools gun-free zones.
  • Lucas: Is “not going to support it.”
  • Olson: Supportive as long as it maintains its local control.
  • Rave: Leaning toward supporting the bill, but is “well aware of the concerns” and could change his mind.
  • Rhoden: Supportive; believes the state should “let the local governing body make the decision for themselves.”
  • Tieszen: Prime sponsor of the bill, has testified for it.

Taking a bit of a leap (some of these statements have been more decisive and clear than others), I’d categorize the committee like this:

Yes votes (4): Lederman, Olson, Rhoden, Tieszen

No votes (3): Frerichs, Johnston, Lucas

Undecided (2): Brown, Rave

With nine members on the committee, the bill needs five votes to pass, and is already one short. If either Brown or Rave votes yes, or one of the no votes changes their mind (without any yes votes flipping), House Bill 1087 will probably pass out of committee.

The ghosts of HB 1234

Voters may have rejected Referred Law 16, but parts of that omnibus reform package are making their way back before the Legislature this year.

First there was Senate Bill 187, letting school districts opt out of “continuing contract” or teacher tenure.

Now Sen. Tim Rave is sponsoring Senate Bill 233, creating a scholarship for teachers in critical-needs fields.

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