Rollout of child care aid plagued by political battle in Pierre

Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 3:22 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 at 4:54 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. - A political dispute at the Statehouse is leading to confusion over grants being sent out to provide financial assistance to South Dakota daycares.

State officials ultimately said Thursday that funding for the grants will be issued to the state’s account, but that decision followed days of political infighting.

South Dakota received millions in federal coronavirus funds through the American Recovery Plan Act to help child care providers. Gov. Kristi Noem has pushed to send checks out to state daycares, but has ran into several roadblocks from other officials who say her office doesn’t have that authority.

On Thursday, a memo from Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s office issued a memo asserting that in order for the grants to go out, they require further legislative approval.

“An expenditure of state funds may only be made upon authorization through an appropriations act, or upon having been deemed appropriated by the interim appropriations committee,” the memo said, adding that the legislature has yet to appropriate any federal money.

State Treasurer Josh Haeder was strongly considering following the advice of this memo, which would have resulted in the suspension of transferring $32 million in federal funds to the state’s account until the move received legislative approval. This could have led to problems with the state’s finances, since grant money from the state account was already set to be distributed to daycares. Without the influx of federal funds, the state’s account could have went into the red.

However, later Thursday, Haeder said his office had approved the transfer of funds.

“The funds at one point were under review once we received the Attorney General’s memorandum,” Haeder said. “We cautiously took our time to make sure we made the right decision as there is a disagreement between members of the legislature, governor, and attorney general’s office. Ultimately, we decided the best course of action was to release the funds because the memorandum was not an official one.”

Haeder says grant checks were sent Thursday to providers who applied for child care grants, and that the money could be in their bank accounts by Friday.

Earlier Thursday, Noem told reporters that believed that she did not require any further authority from the legislature to send the grants out. The governor said specifically that two bills the Statehouse was considering, HB 1333 and HB 1334, were unnecessary.

“Based on decades of how this legislature works, and how budgeting works, those bills aren’t necessary,” Noem said. “I already have the authority, they gave me the authority in last year’s budget.”

Noem also took issue with Ravnsborg’s memo. The governor released a statement calling into question Ravnsborg’s judgement, particularly in light of the fact he is facing impeachment proceedings in the House for his role in a fatal crash.

“Like most South Dakotans, I have no confidence in the attorney general or his judgment,” Noem said. “He cannot be considered unbiased when asked to offer an opinion by the very same house members who are currently considering his impeachment. Just yesterday, the Senate unanimously supported DSS’s authority to send these grants, which is also consistent with longstanding practice. This wrongly-reasoned memo from Jason Ravnsborg doesn’t get the basic facts right and doesn’t change anything.”

The political battle came to its peak Thursday following several days of back-and-forth between House lawmakers and the governor’s office. Many House lawmakers believe the governor did not have authority over the federal funds, hence the aforementioned House bills. Noem has had a number of run-ins with Republican leadership in the House, and has even vented her frustrations publicly.

Ultimately, Noem moved forward issuing the child care grants after the Senate on Wednesday issued a resolution greenlighting her plan.

The state received $61 million total for daycare grants from the federal government. Just over half that amount was sent out to providers Thursday.

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