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Kristi Noem, Jamie Smith clash styles in only planned gubernatorial debate

The hour-long debate, hosted by KOTA and Dakota News Now in Rapid City, offered voters a look at Noem, Smith and Libertarian candidate Tracey Quint. Topics ranged from Noem's grocery tax announcement to Smith and Noem's differing opinions on how the pandemic should have been handled.

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Friday's gubernatorial debate featured, from left to right, Libertarian candidate Tracey Quint, Democratic candidate Jamie Smith and Republican candidate Kristi Noem.
KOTA/Dakota News Now
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RAPID CITY, S.D. — When looking back at some of Gov. Kristi Noem’s debate performances, it becomes clear that she feels most comfortable playing offense.

True to form, the incumbent was in attack mode throughout the hour-long debate held in Rapid City on Friday, Sept. 26, directing her ire entirely at Democratic candidate Jamie Smith.

She used a wide-ranging set of questions — ranging from her position on abortion to the recent announcement supporting a repeal of the state tax on groceries — to tie Smith to the “extreme policies” of the Biden administration, frequently hitting the theme of a campaign advertisement that took to the airwaves earlier this week.

“Jamie Smith supports Joe Biden and his extreme policies. They don't line up with this state. And that is what I'm going to continue to focus on, doing what I can do to help South Dakotans be protected from the federal government,” Noem said during a question about why she had declined to participate in a debate with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

As much as Noem was able to stay on the dual message of touting accomplishments from her first term and tying Smith to the Biden administration, Smith matched with his own ability to stay on message.

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He attempted to cut a gentler image than his opponent, mainly focusing on working together with those in and out of government to solve problems in South Dakota, though he did mix in a few digs at Noem for her “importing” of national issues into the state and a lack of transparency.

“I believe if you want a governor that works for you, a governor that promises to be here, working on your behalf, a governor that won't import problems to the state to solve, a governor that works across the aisle by building bridges rather than tearing things down. The choice is clear,” Smith said as part of his closing statement.

The debate between Noem, Smith and Libertarian Candidate Tracey Quint was jointly held by KOTA and Dakota News Now in Rapid City.

Below are a handful of key questions and exchanges, edited for clarity and length.

Representative Smith, you have been in favor of eliminating the [grocery] tax for some time. What is your position on how the state would make up for the loss in revenue in eliminating that tax?

Jamie Smith: “There are lots of different things we can look at, and one of them would be using the tax that we get when we approved marijuana here in the state. I just find the timing of this ironic because the governor definitely didn't support this last session. And now five weeks before an election, it's a great idea.”

Governor Noem, in responding to Representative Smith. This is a different position that you're taking now. How do you respond to people who say that this is just a political tactic?

Kristi Noem: “Well, it's not a different decision. I supported and looked at repealing the sales tax on food and groceries last year during the legislative session. In fact, my team in the office worked on it for several days. We worked with our Department of Revenue to see what the impacts would be to the state budget. And, as I’ve crossed the state, and I'm in community after community, over and over again. I'm hearing about how they've been devastated by the rising inflation by the policies coming out of this White House and Joe Biden, that are supported by Jamie Smith.”

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Governor Noem, South Dakota voters approved recreational marijuana in 2020. But you helped to direct a lawsuit that ultimately led to the measure being ruled unconstitutional because of the way it was written. As you know, marijuana is on the ballot again this coming November. Do you have any reason to challenge the measure this time around based on its wording?

Noem: “The people will decide. And this appears to be written constitutionally. So if it does pass, I will implement it.”

The fiscal note for Amendment D, which is on the ballot, notes that Medicaid expansion would produce cost savings that would cover 98% of the state's Medicaid expansion cost. So the net annual cost to South Dakota based on the fiscal note would be around $750,000. Is the information on the state's ballot for Amendment D true or false?

Noem: “Looking at an analysis of that ballot measure, it doesn't look into the future what costs would be and what the responsibility of the state government would be. And looking three, four years down the road, we're anticipating that the annual cost for that Medicaid expansion ballot measure would be $80 million… I proposed, brought forward and completed bringing high-speed internet access to every corner of the state so that those people who lived in smaller communities, they can get health care access.”

Though the fiscal note from the Legislative Research Council does come out to a total cost to the state over the first five years of under $4 million, those numbers are skewed by the first two years, which, due to federal incentives, generate savings north of $60 million. During the final three years, the state would be spending over $20 million annually.

Noem’s figure of $80 million likely comes in part from the expectation of over-enrollment that has been a major part of anti-expansion messaging.

Smith: “First of all, this has been a net zero in 39 states across our country. They have figured out a way to do this 39 states across our country... There's a lot of scary things being said about this. But what's so scary about providing people with the opportunity to get the health care that they need?”

Some analyses, such as this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, show that several states have saved money overall due to a decrease in other state health care costs.

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Tracey Quint: “Being a libertarian myself, adding extra cost to our state is something that I would shy away from personally. But, working with other ways to try to look at other things that we're funding as a state and where some of the bloat in our government might be, we should take a look at that.”

Governor Noem, recent polling from South Dakota Newswatch shows that 65% support leaving the legality of abortion in the state up to voters. Would you support that or should the decision be left to state lawmakers?

Noem: “Well, what's in this country today is that the decision is made by the states. In South Dakota we have a law that was passed in 2005 that today is the law of the land here. And every state will look different and make different decisions. And this is really about supporting women… It's incredibly important that we are supporting our families and as I go across the state, over and over again, what I keep hearing is that Jamie Smith's values are too extreme for South Dakota.”

Quint: “I would argue that the issue of abortion shouldn't be left to either [the state or the voters]. I think that's an issue that should be left to the individual involved and to their medical professional. It's a medical decision.”

Smith: “We need to make sure there are exceptions for rape and incest in the state of South Dakota. And make sure that the doctors are able to do their jobs.”

And just so I'm clear on what your answer was, you’re pro-life, and that leaves no room for exceptions for rape or incest.

Noem: “I am pro-life and I've been clear on this issue.”

Smith: “It's clear that I'm not the one that has extremist opinions on this bill, or on this topic... And also the governor doesn't remember who she's running against here. I’m Jamie Smith, from South Dakota. A moderate middle of the road guy who works across the aisle to get things done with people.”

Why is transparency in government so important?

Smith: “We're doing the work of the people. And so when you're doing the work of the people that people need to know what you're doing. One of the problems with the ethics complaint was the use of the state airplane. We had all kinds of stories that were told to us but why we couldn't know what the state airplane was doing… Transparency on who we're hiring to do certain things is important. As governor, I will work to make sure we hire people within our own state.”

Quint: “I would echo that it is the people's money that we're working with. And the role of the government isn't to, you know, create laws and to rule the people. The government is there to protect and serve the people and not the other way around.”

Noem: “The state checkbook is already online. I never once used the state airplane for personal use. We know why those ethics complaints were filed. It was political retaliation by a disgraced attorney general… People love the fact that not only is the state government accountable to them, but they're responding to them. They recognize that we passed fairness in girls sports. And that also we're making sure that our kids are learning a genuine, honest history.”

If you are elected to office, what do you take action on day number one and why?

Quint: “I want to take a look at where government is inefficient in our state, what are we spending too much money on… What can we do to streamline laws and our current state governments so that the people of South Dakota are spending less in taxes and safer and are happier as citizens. I think criminal justice reform is a big thing that we need to take a look at, we spend a lot of money putting people behind bars for nonviolent crimes.”

Smith: “Day number one, we're going to make sure that the people of South Dakota understand that they have a new governor that's willing to sit down and work with everybody. We're going to work for all South Dakotans and in doing so we need to make sure that we address some of our key issues, workforce, housing, child care and addiction.”

Noem: “Jamie Smith hasn't brought forward one single bill that's been signed into law the last two years, and it's because of his extreme positions. It's hard to build coalitions and work across the aisle when you hold such extreme positions and policies and vote that way. My priority this next legislative session is going to be paid family leave. We're going to give businesses more opportunities to offer that to their employees.”

Governor Noem, you've been very outspoken about critical race theory, ordering a review of the curriculum to weed it out. The review returned almost no instances of divisive topics being taught in South Dakota schools. Do you believe those results are accurate? And if so, how do you respond to people who say you're trying to solve a problem in South Dakota that doesn't exist? 

Noem: “I'm ensuring that our kids are protected, parents have more options and control over their kids in their education and that we have the opportunity to unify our state by loving this country, the freedom that it gives each and every one of us every day and how incredibly blessed we are to live in the United States of America.”

Representative Smith, you yourself are a former educator. How do you determine what is a true representation of history?

Smith: “What we should do is follow the work that the teachers and our parents do here in the state of South Dakota, to make sure that we are teaching what South Dakotans want us to be teaching.“

Representative Smith, you co-sponsored a bill that would have required face coverings inside of businesses and state-owned facilities. Many have accused federal, state and local governments of overreach during the pandemic. So how do you justify that position to South Dakota residents?

Smith: “We were looking at the science, the science that was out there. And when you look at the science and what they were telling us to do, that was what we thought we should do… By doing little things, we could ensure that people stayed healthy and keep businesses open… I want people to think about the 3,000 people who died in the state, and that's actually a larger number per-capita than areas around us. At the time I made those decisions I was trying to make sure people in the state of South Dakota were safe.”

According to the New York Times , the overall per-capita death rate of South Dakota as of debate night ranked 22nd highest in the nation. Among the region, it had a higher rate than North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Governor Noem, you continue to say that South Dakota never really closed or shut down during the pandemic. But there are some who point to the state's death rate per-capita as a concern. So how would you defend your administration's response to someone who would say that you prioritize business over public health?

Noem: “As governor, I always prioritized the science and the facts that we had. And we looked at what was happening here in South Dakota and what we could do best together to protect people. Jamie just told us that he didn't do that. Instead, he wanted to mandate closures in the state, take that option away from our businesses, take that option away from families to make the best decisions for themselves.”

MORE BY JASON HARWARD
On Nov. 8, South Dakotans rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana in the state among anyone 21 years and over. Now, the more than 100 businesses clamoring for a piece of this industry will have to attempt to sustain themselves on a few thousand medical patients.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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