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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Gov. Noem wants to make it easier to get guns, more difficult to get abortions | Local

PIERRE | South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday said she would push legislation to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, as she laid out a sharply conservative list of priorities to start the state’s legislative session.

During the final State of the State address of her first term, the Republican governor proposed what amounted to a wishlist for conservative voters, promising to make it easier for state residents to get a permit to carry concealed firearms and nearly impossible for them to get an abortion. She is also proposing a requirement that schools allot time for prayer, a ban on the teaching of controversial material on race in public schools and ensured exemptions from COVID-19 vaccines for medical or religious reasons.

“In South Dakota, we protect freedom, and we will pass it on to our children, and we will not allow freedom to go extinct,” the governor said, as she derided other states for enacting restrictions to prevent and slow COVID-19 infections.

Noem has used her hands-off approach to the pandemic to generate nationwide attention among Republicans. She has positioned herself for a 2024 White House bid, and her speech Tuesday showed a willingness to tap into the country’s most incendiary social issues to stay in the spotlight.

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“It was a campaign speech,” said Rep. Jamie Smith, the House Democratic leader, adding that it was a “blueprint of how conservative can I be?”

The governor’s office did not immediately release details on the bill to ban abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy — often known as “heartbeat law.” The Supreme Court’s willingness to consider striking down Roe v. Wade — the 1973 decision that established the right to an abortion nationwide — has prompted a flurry of bill-writing in statehouses.

But medical experts say the heart doesn’t begin to form until the fetus it is at least nine weeks old, and they decry efforts to promote abortion bans by relying on medical inaccuracies.

“Today, I am asking all of you to protect the heartbeats of these unborn children,” Noem told the lawmakers in the House chamber. “I am bringing legislation to ban all abortions once a heartbeat can be detected.”

The proposal received a standing ovation from the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Noem also touted a $116 million tax surplus and proposed using that to slash fees for applications for concealed weapon permits, including covering the cost of federal background checks. She also proposed cutting fees to register businesses with the Secretary of State and cutting a tax on bingo operations.

Noem’s list of proposals will put Democrats, who just hold 11 seats in the Legislature, on the defensive. But Noem also faces several political foes within her own party, including one House member who is mounting a primary campaign against her.

Rep. Steve Haugaard, who has criticized the governor for not being conservative enough, agreed that Noem’s State of the State address was more of a campaign speech and said that if the governor was serious about such proposals, she would not have waited until the final year of her term to bring them up.

The governor’s tenure has been marked by the coronavirus pandemic and her decision to mostly forego lockdowns or other restrictions. Noem on Tuesday defended those who don’t get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying, “We live in a free country and we are free to make our own decisions.”

Smith criticized the governor’s failure to encourage people to get vaccinated, pointing out that the overwhelming majority of people hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated. The state’s hospitals have been strained in recent weeks as they handle the most people hospitalized with COVID-19 in over a year.

But Republican Rep. Chris Johnson of Rapid City, the assistant leader of House Republicans, praised the governor’s speech and approach to the pandemic, saying it has positioned the state to grow into the future.

“The governor deserves to take a victory lap at this time,” he said.

Noem touted South Dakota’s model of “staying open for business” during the pandemic as cause for new businesses, an influx of tourists and attracting new residents to the state. The governor specifically mentioned AEsir Technologies, which announced plans to build a new 600,000-square-foot factory in Rapid City.

“AEsir Technologies chose Rapid City as the location for their new Gigafactory after a nationwide search,” she said. “They considered what every other state in this country had to offer, and then they chose South Dakota as the best place for them to expand. They’ll create 400 new good-paying high-tech jobs in the process.”

The governor also commended Black Hills Harley-Davidson in Rapid City and Albany Farms in Belle Fourche for hitting new business goals and for building new facilities in South Dakota.

“No matter how these businesses got here or got started, they are thriving because here in South Dakota, the government gets out of the way, allows them to grow and innovate, and helps out where we can,” Noem said.

She asked the Legislature to support her plan to build 175 additional campsites at Custer State Park, a project Noem announced during her Dec. 7 budget presentation. The governor said the new campsites are needed to address more tourists who visit the Black Hills.

“Our state parks saw a 10% increase for park entrance licenses over last year’s record, with an estimated 8.5 million visitors. We plan to add more campsites at Custer State Park to expand our ability to host people from in and out of state,” Noem said. “Since 2015, we have seen an increase of nearly 100,000 camping nights reserved throughout the state park system. I am hopeful you will support these projects.”

— Journal assistant managing editor Nathan Thompson contributed to this report.

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