2021 State of the State (as prepared)

Article Body


Lieutenant Governor Rhoden, Mr. Speaker, members of the Legislature, Chief Justice Jensen, Justices of the Supreme Court, constitutional officers, and fellow South Dakotans, it is my privilege to stand before you today to discuss the state of our state. 

The year 2020 was one for the history books. We faced some incredible challenges in South Dakota. We met this adversity head on. And the PEOPLE of South Dakota deserve all the credit.  

People struggled, they lost loved ones, and their livelihoods were threatened. But they never lost hope. They were resilient.  

That fortitude enabled us to emerge from 2020 stronger, as individuals and as a state.

Last year, a good portion of this speech was dedicated to explaining why South Dakota is the perfect place to work or run a business.  

Our people – their work ethic and their values – are second to none. 

All of us in this room, who work for them, respect the rights of our people to live their lives. 

We don't have a corporate income tax. There is no business inventory tax. 

We have no personal income tax. We also do not have a personal property tax or an inheritance tax. 

The taxes that we do have to fund state government are stable and predictable. In short, for those who might be worried about tax increases, you do not need to be. 

The government in South Dakota lives within its means. We balance our budget without accounting gimmicks or tricks. 

We proudly hold a triple-A credit rating, and our state pension plan is fully funded.  

Our state believes in smart regulation. We roll out the red carpet, and cut up the red tape. 

We are the pheasant capital of the world. And our state parks and outdoor recreational opportunities are unmatched.  

For those who have spent the last nine months shut down or locked up in other states, South Dakota is open. We have stayed open the entire time. And that’s how we will operate for as long as I am Governor. 

One of my chief priorities as Governor is to grow South Dakota. That is why you hear me inviting those who cherish and value our way of life to come join us. South Dakota is the perfect place to raise your family, grow your business, and live your life as you see fit.  

My administration continues to do everything in its power to help in this effort.  

This last year, we assisted with projects that will result in more than $2.8 billion in capital investment across South Dakota – projects ranging from agriculture to manufacturing to technology. We announced that Amazon is building a $200 million distribution center in Sioux Falls. But it wasn’t just our largest community that saw success. Towns like Fort Pierre, Belle Fourche, Watertown, Rapid City, Parker, and Lead all saw companies growing in their communities.  

In total, the projects we have worked on over the past year are expected to result in more than 2,100 new jobs in the state of South Dakota. And just yesterday, we announced the largest project in the history of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development: a $500 million investment from Schwan’s, which will bring 600 full-time jobs to Sioux Falls. CJ Foods and Schwan’s are building a world-class facility, the most high-tech facility of its kind in the world. That’s a great start to 2021 for our state. 

This economic development provides opportunities for our families and our communities to grow. It allows our kids to start and develop their careers here. When they start their families, that will mean they are closer to home – to Mom, Dad, grandparents, and extended family. Strong families have always been the backbone of South Dakota.  

President Reagan once said: “Our families nurture, preserve, and pass on to each succeeding generation the values we share and cherish, values that are the foundation for our freedoms.”  
Today, more than ever, it is important we work to strengthen families. I am committed to being a family-first governor – fighting to strengthen the family unit and preserve the values South Dakotans have long embraced.  
Today, I am joined by two families that will help explain one of my priorities this session: the Fite and the Duffy families.  
Aaron and Tami Fite live in Platte, South Dakota, with their four children.  
Sean and Rachel Duffy live in Wisconsin. They have 9 children. And you might remember that Sean served with me while I was in Congress. 
I have known both families for years. The reason I asked them to join us today is to highlight two of their children.  

Cody Fite and Valentina Duffy both have Down syndrome. God blessed these beautiful children with an additional chromosome. Their gorgeous smiles, distinct personalities, and that vibrancy you see before you are all gifts from God. For those who have had the privilege of knowing someone with Down syndrome, you know that person ends up being a gift to all of us.  

I share this because even today, in 2021, some European countries, like Iceland and Denmark, are on pace to virtually eliminate children with Down syndrome. They do this one way and one way only: through abortion. As actress Patricia Heaton points out, Iceland is simply killing everyone that has it.  

As South Dakotans, frankly, as human beings, we should all be appalled by this. We are better than that. 

The Declaration of Independence summarizes what we all know in our hearts to be true. God created each of us and endowed all of us with the right to life. This is true for everyone, including those with an extra chromosome.  

I look forward to the day when the Supreme Court recognizes that all preborn children inherently possess this right to life, too. Until that time comes, I am asking the South Dakota legislature to pass a law that bans the abortion of a preborn child, just because that child is diagnosed with Down syndrome.  

Let’s make South Dakota a symbol of hope, justice, and love for children like Cody and Valentina. With the help of several pro-life groups across the state, my team will present legislation for your consideration and swift passage. 
Aaron and Tami, Sean and Rachel would you and your families please stand. Thank you for being here. And thank you for being a voice for so many who can’t speak for themselves. 

Protecting children begins in the womb, but children of all ages need a loving family to care for and support them throughout their lives. In my first state of the state, I stood at this podium and asked people to open their hearts and homes to foster children. I asked you to consider giving a child a forever home. In FY 2020, we licensed a 5-year high of 238 new foster homes. 

I want to commend these families that have opened their hearts and homes to these children. Let me explain why this work is important.  

Oftentimes, these kids just need a bridge. They just need someone to believe in them.  

It’s important to note there are a lot of people inside and outside government providing that bridge. Today, I want to recognize a very special friend of mine. Jack, where are you? Would you please stand.  

Jack Brewer, for those who might not know him, is a former NFL safety. Today, he is an ordained minister and the executive director of the Jack Brewer Foundation. He runs inner-city youth programs and teaches in prisons all across America. He is an advocate for strong families and highlights the significance of having a father in every home.  

Jack is in South Dakota this week to join Bryon on a couple of visits to the men’s and women’s prisons, as well as the McCrossan Boys Ranch in Sioux Falls. Jack, thank you for your advocacy work and all that you do here and around the globe. We all welcome you to South Dakota. Would you all join me in recognizing Jack? 

As I outlined in my Budget Address, I believe we must create an environment where families are not forced to choose between the modern economy on the one hand and life in their hometown on the other. That’s why I am proposing that we invest to finish connecting the state with broadband.  

Even the most remote communities across our state should be provided the tools they need to be connected. Thriving communities from border to border will yield much better results for our state and our families, rather than concentrated growth in just two cities. 

There are still 135,000 South Dakotans without high-speed broadband access that meets the needs of the 21st Century. A state investment, coupled with industry funding and federal grants, is enough to get the job done.  

Success would mean our rural communities would have the opportunity to grow, and families would have the chance to stay together.  

Take for example the story of Jeff O’Dell. Jeff works for one of the largest computer network infrastructure companies in the world. He grew up in Lemmon, South Dakota.  

He went to junior high and high school in Aberdeen. After attending one year of college at the School of Mines, Jeff made his way west. For twenty years, Jeff lived in sunny, southern California. But every summer for the last 10 years, he would come back to South Dakota. At first, his trips were a week or two at a time. Then, they got longer.  

In April of 2019, Jeff started building a home in Lemmon. When COVID hit, thanks to broadband access, Jeff was able to move to Lemmon full-time and work remotely. Most of his work days are spent on video conference calls. But he says he doesn’t mind it because he is surrounded by open spaces, fresh air, and great people. His cousins and their kids live in Lemmon. And his folks and sister are just three hours away in Aberdeen with another sister in Bismarck.  

There’s also a woman named Stacey. Every day, she enjoys a view of the Missouri River and – with her dog by her side – works remotely. According to Stacey, having a strong broadband connection means she can work where she wants to live, instead of having to live where she works. 

Stories like Jeff and Stacey’s are very common in South Dakota as of late. People with big city salaries are moving to small-town South Dakota. They enjoy the lower cost of living and end up spending their money in our communities. They believe in the freedom that South Dakota has to offer. 

My hope is that we can work together to get our state connected, so we can set up this generation and the next for success, no matter where they want to live. 

Speaking of where people want to live, residential home sales are up all across the state. And home construction in South Dakota is especially strong. New home construction in South Dakota is more than one-and-a-half times greater than the national average. And over the past 10 months, construction employment in South Dakota is up 10% compared to a year ago. 

As I told you all last month, we’re in a much stronger financial position than other states across the country. States that shut down their economies are now looking at tax increases or drastic spending cuts to make ends meet. 

We made different choices than virtually any other state over the past year. To be fair, I never once thought the decisions we were making in South Dakota during the pandemic would be unique. But other states based a lot of their decisions on fear and emotion, and now they’re seeing the results of that. In South Dakota, we do not make policy out of fear. We prepare for the worst but always remain optimistic that the best is yet to come. 

We continue to get good news about South Dakota’s revenue situation. Ongoing general fund revenues are up tens of millions of dollars through December, compared to last fiscal year.

A similar story can be found in the agriculture industry. The blizzards and flooding of 2019 prevented nearly 4 million of our 19 million acres from being planted. The result was a 24% decrease in corn production and 36% loss in soybeans from 2018.  

But USDA is forecasting that corn production will grow by 31% from last year with yields estimated to increase to record highs. Soybeans also had a banner year, with overall production forecast to grow by 53%.  

This is very good news, because our agricultural industry is critically important. Our farmers and producers not only feed our families, but also serve as a catalyst for our economy.  

In July, the reforms we made to standardize and streamline the permitting process took effect. The result is a more competitive and attractive environment for ag businesses. To date, I am pleased to report we had 23 new ag projects resulting in more than 320 new jobs across the state. 

But even with all this good news, we need to continue to bolster our largest industry.  
That’s why the ag investments I proposed in my budget address are so crucial. The meat processing grants, the investment in the Dakota Events Complex, the creation of a program to give farmers more opportunity to market South Dakota meat products, and the merger of  the Departments of Agriculture and DENR too – each of these items will help reinvigorate our number one industry – and all the families it serves -- for many years to come.  

As we continue to look toward the year ahead, I am excited to report a light at the end of the tunnel with regard to our fight against COVID-19. South Dakota is leading the nation in disbursing the COVID vaccine. In just over a month, tens of thousands of people across the state have received their first dose. This is a testament to the incredible work the team at the Department of Health and all our medical professionals are doing. 

We shouldn’t be surprised. Our medical professionals stepped up in all kinds of unforeseen ways in 2020, and their stories deserve to be told. 

Take for example what has happened the last month or so in Wagner. Just before Christmas, the CEO of Wagner Community Memorial Hospital shared some really outstanding news about the work his team has been doing. They used an out-patient, innovative COVID-19 therapy to treat patients, including 30 residents in the nursing home. In total, more than 80 patients ranging in age from 50 to 104 have received this treatment without having to take up hospital beds. 78 patients have recovered.  

A similar story has taken place here in Pierre. Dr. Darrell Plumage normally works at the clinic here in town. But when COVID hit, he and his team turned their attention away from the clinic to acute COVID care. That included the Avantara Pierre facility. 

Every single resident in the Avantara facility is considered high-risk. Of the 53 residents, 52 tested positive for the virus, after a staffer unknowingly brought it into the facility. But like so many other long-term care facilities, the residents weren’t the only issue – half the staff tested positive as well.  

At times, Dr. Plumage and his team ended up working around the clock. During one stretch, some staff worked 12-hour days for 22 days straight. 

Despite being understaffed and overworked, this team was determined to handle the acute care needs of these residents. Admitting 52 people to the hospital in Pierre would have overwhelmed that facility, so Dr. Plumage and his team treated them at Avantara. The expectation was that half the residents would not survive. That number ended up being far less because of the work of Dr. Plumage and his team. 70% of the Avantara residents recovered from the virus.  

These stories are not unique to Pierre and Wagner. What these medical professionals have done over the last 9 months to battle this virus is nothing short of remarkable. 

With us today are the Wagner hospital CEO – Bryan Slaba, Dr. Plumage, and some of the team members that made this possible. Would you all please stand so that we can recognize your efforts and all the efforts of our health care professionals all across the state.  

What you did, what your teams did, and what all the medical professionals across the state have done deserve recognition. Thank you.

We also made sure that our approach to caring for South Dakotans was holistic – focusing on physical wellbeing, but also mental health.  

In February 2020, the Department of Health worked with several other groups to focus on suicide prevention this year. Our 605 Strong initiative connected South Dakotans fighting mental health issues with trained crisis counselors. This initiative proved critical in the face of a global pandemic. In 2020, we have seen suicides decline.  

Another tool we greatly expanded access to is telehealth. Since March, people have used tech services like these more than 70,000 times in South Dakota’s Medicaid program alone. This year, I’m going to ask that you support legislation to make these flexibilities permanent. In 2021, we should build on telehealth advancements and continue to find ways to remove government red tape in health care.  

Lastly on healthcare, I want to provide an update on the state’s work to curtail substance abuse. We know that drug and alcohol abuse can destroy a family. And even though this kind of challenge can happen anywhere, there are key problems that must be addressed in our tribal communities. 

Earlier this year, the third annual state tribal meth summit was held virtually in partnership with the Departments of Tribal Relations and Social Services. These summits are a bedrock in bringing state and tribal healthcare providers and leaders together. The state stands ready to work with our tribes and all South Dakota communities to combat substance abuse. 

As we look to improve the overall health and wellbeing of every South Dakotan, recreation is a key part of that conversation. 

This last year, social distancing created a great opportunity for South Dakotans to get outside.  Nature and the outdoors provided our families an escape from the pandemic. Because South Dakota remained open and didn’t lock down, more Americans from out of state came to enjoy our natural spaces too.  

Custer State Park surpassed 2 million visits this year for the first time ever.  

We saw increases in youth and first-time hunters. We also sold a record number of licenses for youth-mentored hunting. We saw huge increases in youth combo licenses as well as resident and nonresident fishing licenses.  

Getting our youth to put down the Xbox and pick up the tackle box has been a priority of mine for many years. In March, a young woman named Savanah Hendricks, a junior high student from Vivian had a great idea. 

With the goal of getting out in the field more with her family, Savannah created a petition urging the Game, Fish, and Parks Commission to extend the youth pheasant season from five to nine days. At the May meeting, the Commission adopted Savannah’s proposal. It is my hope that more young people will get involved – like Savannah did – finding new ways to secure South Dakota’s outdoor heritage for the next generation.  

Savannah is here with us today. Would you please stand? It is my hope that her story will serve as an example to all South Dakotans to get involved in policymaking.  

We are going to continue finding ways to create more hunting and fishing opportunities in our state for those young and old. This year, I’m asking the legislature to adopt simpler licensure requirements for kids under the age of 18. The goal is to get more people engaged at an early age, so they continue those experiences long into their adulthood.  

This is one of the reasons why I have so heavily emphasized the importance of the Bounty Program. Over the last two years, nearly 4,300 people participated in the nest predator bounty program, many being youth and first-time trappers. They have removed roughly 81,000 nest predators – a great thing for our pheasant numbers. And we are just getting started. 

Anecdotally, everything we have heard this year is that our pheasant numbers are through the roof. Long-time hunters say they have never seen as many roosters as they did this year. 

Hunters are not the only people who came to our state this year. As I mentioned, this was a challenging year for tourism, but South Dakota has outperformed almost every other state in the country in this category.  

Our visitor inquiries have skyrocketed, and one thing is clear:  Folks from all across the country want to visit South Dakota. 

In 2021, we are going to build on this momentum and ensure that we continue to grow. Our tourism department will be working on a new strategic plan to guide its overall efforts for the next several years to take advantage of the huge amount of interest we’ve received. 

This includes enhancing our promotion of the state in new markets and especially targeting key demographics that have an interest in our parks, history, culture, and great outdoors. Given that three of our state’s rodeos were recently chosen as the very best in the country by the NFR, we will also be improving our facilities for hosting equestrian and rodeo events. We know that our state has the potential to be the best place in the country for some of these events, and we want to capitalize on these opportunities in the years ahead.  

This complements the department’s ongoing work with Agritourism and the First Gentlemen’s small-town initiative to get visitors off the beaten path and experience all that South Dakota has to offer. 

Our tourism department continues to make steady progress working with tribal partners around the state to lay the groundwork to enhance tribal tourism on our reservations. 

Every visitor we welcome to our state has an impact that resonates. Their visits help support good jobs and lifelong careers for South Dakotans. Their spending benefits our small businesses. And the tax revenue they generate goes right back into our communities and helps make this state the best place to live in America. 

One of the main reasons our tourism numbers have been so strong this year is the resilience of our people and small businesses. 

The South Dakotans who run these small businesses inspire all of us. And our businesses will have a better chance of success if South Dakota’s students have excellent educational opportunities. 

Everyone in this room knows that good education starts in the home. It starts with strong parents. We have decades of research to show that parents are the most critical influence on a child’s success in the classroom. COVID-19 underscored just how involved parents need to be in their children’s day-to-day education. It’s our duty to find innovative solutions that empower parents to set their children up for success. 

This includes improving the civic education of our kids. Students should be taught our nation’s history and all that makes America unique. They should see first-hand the importance of civic engagement. And they should have robust discussions in the classroom so they can develop critical thinking skills.   

Our young people need more experience engaging with elected officials and practicing the art of debate. It is also our responsibility to show them how government works.  

Here’s how:  

I have tasked my administration with creating instructional materials and classroom resources on America’s founding, our nation’s history, and the state’s history. We must also do a better job educating teachers on these three subjects. Through all of this, our common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world. 

With this knowledge as a foundational building block, every South Dakotan can then chart their own path in the future. Our technical colleges provide them one such excellent opportunity. 

South Dakota’s technical colleges have received national awards, attention, and funding for the high-quality programs they offer in key, growing industries. All four of our tech schools are in the top 4% of the country for upward mobility. Students who graduate from our colleges are fully equipped for high-demand, technical careers the moment they receive their diplomas.  

A young woman named Vanessa is a student in the Licensed Practical Nursing Program at Southeast Technical College. She is a first-generation college student, and an incredibly hard worker. Vanessa is set to graduate this spring and already has a job lined up in our state.

Our technical colleges are full of stories like Vanessa’s. And South Dakota is investing in our students to expand these opportunities moving forward. 

Last week, we made an exciting announcement regarding the future of the Build Dakota Scholarship. Together over the next 5 years, we will invest approximately $40 million to match students with high-demand career opportunities.  

We also announced the creation of the PREMIER Scholarship, a needs-based scholarship endowment for our state.  Denny and PREMIER have already delivered a check for $50 million, and have pledged another $50 million going forward. I am asking you to allocate $50 million in one-time money to match this transformational gift. 

The PREMIER Scholarship requires that students live and work in South Dakota for three years after graduation. Otherwise, the scholarship turns into a loan. The endowment for this critical scholarship fund needs $200 million to be self-sustaining into the future. Denny and PREMIER are getting us halfway there. Your action will get the fund to $150 million dollars. Together, let’s get it done.  

In partnership with the Department of Labor, the technical college system also launched the South Dakota UpSkill program this fall. This program supports workers dislocated by COVID-19. UpSkill consists of 22 online certificate programs in high-demand fields, including business, healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing. More than 100 individuals are taking advantage of this assistance. 

Workforce Development remains a top concern for South Dakota companies. Some businesses are tackling this concern by building their own Registered Apprenticeship training programs. In fact, 44 organizations have built Registered Apprenticeship programs since 2018. More than 700 South Dakotans are improving their skills through one of these programs. 

For example, in Huron the Executive Director of Independent Health Solutions built a Home Health Aide Registered Apprenticeship program. This structured training and mentorship improved team morale and confidence. It led to less than 1% turnover, allowing for a 20% increase in the number of Home Health Aides on staff. 
While Registered Apprenticeships are just one solution to workforce development, it lays a strong foundation for our future workforce and our state economy.   

I want to now turn to a subject that we all hold dear to our hearts: our veterans and the military.   

This year, South Dakota was ranked the #1 state in America for veterans to live and work. 

We have expanded the tuition program for veterans to include technical colleges. We have increased property tax exemptions for veterans who have disabilities. We have a tax exemption for paraplegic and amputee veterans. We have increased the number of beds at the Hot Springs Veterans Home so that we can care for more veterans. We also broke ground on the first ever State Veterans Cemetery in Sioux Falls.  

These veterans are special members of our state and are like family to so many in their communities. I’d like to highlight a story to illustrate this point.   

Geri Opsal (Op-sawl) is a veteran who served our country in the United States Air Force. Today, she is the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Veterans Service Officer and works with the Department of Veteran Affairs. It was her love of country that guided her to continue down the path of serving our heroes. 

Geri has a sincere drive and passion to serve veterans. This year, Geri was awarded the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs Outreach Officer of the Year Award.  

Geri is with us today. Would you please join me in thanking her for her service to our nation and all the veterans across our state? 

Another group of men and women who deserve our recognition are the members of the South Dakota National Guard. The Guard’s response to the pandemic is now the longest-sustained, state-supported mission in the history of the Guard. Our Soldiers and Airmen have provided COVID-19 support since March 

Our Guard’s support for federal commitments also continued in 2020. South Dakota committed roughly 490 Soldiers and Airmen from five units to statesi