PIERRE, S.D. — Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday, Jan. 11, said that Americans were rushing to South Dakota because of her administration's lax approach to public health mandates and embrace of personal liberty.
"They're coming here because they want to be like us," Noem said during a 60-minute state of the state speech at the Statehouse. The annual speech to the Legislative traditionally opens the two-month legislative session in Pierre. "The reason why is no secret. People want to live somewhere that respects them."
Her speech veered from low taxes to gun policy, and included a shout-out to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who was in attendance in Pierre Tuesday. He stood in the House chamber and received applause after Noem called him a partner in her criticism of higher education over the teaching of race in American History.
The Republican governor described her home state as a place unfettered by red tape, such as her plans to wipe away a bingo fee, and comp citizens for fees on federal gun background checks. Traditionally Democratic states, such as California and New York, had lost population during the COVID-19 pandemic, she noted.
"They locked down, closed up businesses, shut schools, mandated masks," Noem said. "And it didn't have to happen."
Noem spoke only obliquely about the pandemic to a mostly unmasked audience, thanking health care professionals and adding "we are getting you more help." The first-term governor did not note that the state on Monday marked the highest seven-day hospitalization average of the two-year-old pandemic.
Currently, South Dakota has the sixth-highest infection rate in the country, despite being largely rural, and where social distancing can be found as easily as a pheasant, as her 2020 hunting advertisement noted.
With regard to the ongoing pandemic, Noem turned to vaccines, saying inoculation against COVID-19 should be a choice, rather than the mandate that the Biden administration has sought to enforce through employer-based requirements.
"Unvaccinated Americans are still Americans," said Noem, who observed the state would also "recognize natural immunity."
Noem Tuesday also announced her bills for a "" in public schools, as well as a ban on abortions after detection of cardiac activity, typically around six weeks of pregnancy.
The former congresswoman also touched on her administration's policies in workforce and economic development, spotlighting a Sioux Falls boutique owner grateful that the state didn't impose restrictions on in-person business during the pandemic.
Only briefly did Noem invoke a fight she authorized, namely a lawsuit to overturn a voter-approved adult-use marijuana program, instead foreshadowing "some debate" in the Legislature about the recently enshrined medical cannabis program, saying she wanted "the safest, most responsible, and most well-run medical cannabis program in the country."
Her address Tuesday came with last year's legislative fight over transgender participation in youth sports still lingering in the rear-view mirror. Noem also drew bipartisan criticism this summer for dispatching the National Guard to the southern U.S. border after accepting a $1 million donation from a GOP fundraiser.
Adding a further complication, Noem is just a few months away from an intra-party primary against far-right conservative Rep. Steve Haugaard, R-Sioux Falls, who has decried the governor's involvement in a nepotism scandal over her daughter's application for a realty appraiser certification.
In the days prior the session, the governor's staff released a list of lawmakers who support Noem's reelection bid, perhaps inadvertently revealing that dozens of Republicans have yet to sign onto her candidacy.
The cordial, though not cozy, relationship between Noem and the 105-member Legislature, controlled by a Republican super-super-majority (approximately 90% of the members), emerged in a yarn at the beginning of Noem's speech. Noem told a story about Sen. Jessica Castleberry, R-Rapid City, starting her own business, which was met with little applause.
"Yeah," Noem encouraged, "Clap for her."
This time, more lawmakers clapped.
While Noem faces a primary challenger, she's yet to draw a Democratic opponent. On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls, told Forum News Service that the message of Noem's speech was "we're free and nobody else is, which is not true."
Given the millions in federal aid Noem will use for her budget, Smith called Tuesday's address a missed opportunity for bipartisanship.
"The governor has an opportunity ... to bring us all together," Smith said. "Instead, there were many opportunities in this speech to divide."