- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A few years ago, it was a surprise to see successful legislation come out of a South Dakota legislative summer study, according to one state lawmaker.

The Legislature’s executive board chooses a few topics every year to study in the summer between sessions. Appointed committees meet about four times in the summer and early fall, gathering public and expert testimony on the topic.

“The summer studies there for a while were noted for not passing anything,” Sen. Ryan Maher, the chair of the executive board, said.

But two 2013 summer studies resulted in new state laws and impacted the budget the Legislature passed last week, as the main run of this year’s legislative session came to an end.

Last year’s studies covered domestic violence and school funding.

Maher, R-Isabel, says the annual studies serve an important role, helping lawmakers delve deep into issues between sessions.

The study on domestic violence resulted in six bills - five are now laws. The chair of that committee, Sen. Deb Soholt, is thrilled at the outcome.

“I think part of the success is that we’ve been tinkering around with domestic abuse bills for quite a few years. So sometimes the legislative outcome is based on years that build upon years,” the Sioux Falls Republican said. “But the most important thing that we did this year with our summer study was to stay very, very focused.”

One new policy clarifies who is protected under domestic abuse laws: Couples who don’t live together are protected, but platonic roommates are not.

Soholt says that even the bill that failed provoked an important discussion. That measure would have made it an additional crime to commit domestic abuse in front of a child.

“If there are children present, that has ramifications for their futures as well,” Soholt said. “And while a lot of people were not comfortable with that (bill) at this time, we did end up with a good conversation, and I think something that will come forward again in the future.”

The study has also led to efforts by the Department of Social Services to track how the state spends money addressing domestic abuse.

“They’ve already done a survey of the kind of response teams that we have in different communities,” she said. “So we’re trying to look and see where the gaps are in our state.”

A variety of measures came out of the school funding study. That committee covered a range of topics from the education funding formula to the use of technology in classrooms.

Soholt said the broad focus of the study might have inhibited it. Even though several bills that came from the study failed, Sen. Larry Tidemann, the vice chair of the committee said a few positive things emerged.

Education funding got a 3.35 percent boost in the new annual budget compared with the previous one, more even than the 3 percent increase recommended by the Governor.

“That was a good omen. It could have been 1.6 (percent),” the Brookings Republican said. “I think people recognize the importance of education.”

The Legislature will study child sexual abuse, tribal economic development and another undecided topic or two this summer.

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