- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A raft of criminal charges in high-profile financial misconduct cases were big news in 2016, but the year’s top story may have been a historic sales tax hike to boost South Dakota’s lowest-in-the-nation teacher pay.

It almost fell apart in the state House, coming in one vote short. After another try, the half-cent sales tax increase - the first permanent bump since 1969 - scraped through with none to spare and headed to the Senate.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s package of education measures became law in March. Teachers cheered average pay projected to rise almost 12 percent to nearly $47,000.

Other notable stories:

BIG BILLS

Daugaard started 2016 without having knowingly met a transgender person. By March, he had met with a group of transgender people and vetoed a bill that would have made South Dakota first in the U.S. to approve a law requiring transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender at birth.

The bill drew national condemnation. Supporters said it would protect student privacy.

In another high-profile move during the 2016 session, Daugaard signed a bill prohibiting most abortions beyond 19 weeks of pregnancy.

BUILDING COLLAPSE

Construction worker Ethan McMahon, a 24-year-old former Marine, was killed in a December building collapse in downtown Sioux Falls that also trapped a woman for three hours under the debris. McMahon and his brother, who made it out of the wreckage, were working when the 100-year-old building fell down around them.

The trapped woman, 22-year-old Emily Fodness, was able to call her mother and eventually gave directions that helped rescuers find her.

BALLOT BOXING

The shine on a voter-approved government ethics overhaul didn’t last long. A group of two dozen GOP lawmakers and others filed a lawsuit, and a state judge put the measure on hold while the challenge proceeds. In jeopardy are major political changes: an ethics commission, public campaign funding and limitations on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers.

The dispute appears likely to spill into the 2017 legislative session.

BIG COURT CASES

Joop Bollen, the man who once ran South Dakota’s investment-for-visa program, was charged in March in a long-running and complicated financial misconduct case. Bollen, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of diverting more than $1.2 million from an account created to protect the state against costs or liability from South Dakota’s EB-5 visa program. Authorities say he put back most of the money.

A tragedy in Platte stretched into this year, with charges filed in March against three people for allegedly aiding in an embezzlement scheme that eventually ended in Scott Westerhuis killing his wife, Nicole, and their children. Authorities believe the couple stole more than $1 million beforehand.

Dan Guericke, Stephanie Hubers and Stacy Phelps have pleaded not guilty.

Two consultants who helped a Native American tribe plan the nation’s first marijuana resort were charged with drug offenses in August, eight months after the Flandreau Santee Sioux destroyed their crop amid fears of a federal raid. Jonathan Hunt, who oversaw the first crop for the tribe, pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy count. Eric Hagen, the CEO of the Colorado-based consulting firm Monarch America, has pleaded not guilty.

Seth Jeffs, brother of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs, was one of 11 people indicted in an alleged multi-million-dollar food stamp fraud scheme. Authorities say Seth Jeffs, who has pleaded not guilty, has led a compound of the faithful in rural Custer County, South Dakota.

BLACK ELK PEAK

A federal board surprised South Dakota by renaming the state’s tallest peak after Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk, who died in 1950. The August decision by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names swept aside the old name, Harney Peak, removing the name of a man whose soldiers killed Native Americans.

The board determined that Harney was offensive to area Native Americans. The Oglala Sioux member in his 80s who pushed to rechristen the peak said the decision was a sign of compassion and reconciliation. The change to Black Elk Peak was panned by Republicans Daugaard and U.S. Sen. John Thune.


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