- Associated Press - Saturday, December 22, 2018

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The year in South Dakota featured a historic campaign for governor that saw voters elect the first woman for the job.

In a race that was closer than expected, Republican Rep. Kristi Noem held off Democrat Billie Sutton after an October poll showed the race as neck-and-neck. Other top stories included the state’s first execution since 2012, a decision by voters that made South Dakota the first state to change its version of Marsy’s Law, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on online sales tax based on a South Dakota case, and the promotion of Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune to majority whip.

A look at some of the state’s top stories of 2018:


Noem said it was “pretty humbling” to be elected South Dakota’s first female governor. She downplayed the distinction during her campaign, instead focusing on her farming and ranching background and congressional achievements. Noem held off a surprisingly strong challenge from Sutton, a former rodeo cowboy who turned to politics after a paralyzing injury. Noem said she felt relieved to win.


Thune was promoted to the second-highest position in his party’s Senate leadership. A term limit for majority whips forced Texas Sen. John Cornyn out of the job. Thune was unopposed for the position and was elected by his Senate colleagues. Whips are responsible for counting heads and rounding up party members for votes and quorum calls, and they occasionally stand in for the majority or minority leaders in their absence.


A South Dakota inmate who killed a correctional officer seven years ago during a failed prison escape on the guard’s 63rd birthday was put to death in October. Rodney Berget became the second inmate executed for the 2011 slaying of Ronald “R.J.” Johnson, who was beaten with a pipe and had his head covered in plastic wrap. A transcript from the execution shows that the 56-year-old Berget’s last words were: “Is it supposed to feel like that?” Eric Robert was executed for the crime in 2012.


Voters approved changes to South Dakota’s version of the “Marsy’s Law” victims’ bill of rights to ease the burden on law enforcement and prosecutors. The amendment requires victims to opt in to many of their rights and specifically lets authorities share information with the public to help solve crimes. The move made South Dakota the first state to change its version of the law, though Montana’s high court tossed it out in that state. Officials in several states say Marsy’s Law has had unintended consequences , including causing problems for authorities and increasing costs for counties.


A South Dakota sheriff’s deputy was fired by his boss after defeating him in a primary race, unleashing a slew of negative phone calls and comments that hindered emergency response. Former Bon Homme County Deputy Mark Maggs was canned after he beat out incumbent Sheriff Lenny Gramkow in the election. Gramkow has said he has no regrets. He also has declined to list the reasons for the termination or comment on the timing. He acknowledged that he was disappointed after Maggs chose to run against him.


The cases of three people charged in the so-called Gear Up scandal were resolved to end an investigation launched after an executive of Mid-Central Educational Cooperative killed his family and himself in 2015. The nonprofit’s director, Dan Guericke, pleaded guilty to falsifying evidence. He received a suspended sentence. Two other people were cleared after jury trials . The first hint of major issues with the organization came after the group’s chief financial officer, Scott Westerhuis, killed his family, set fire to his house and killed himself. Authorities have said they believe Westerhuis and his wife stole more than $1 million.


Soybean farmers saw the value of their crop plummet amid a Trump administration trade war with China, the top export market for South Dakota beans. China began buying U.S. soybeans again toward the end of the year under a three-month truce, but farmers were lobbying for more federal aid to tide them over until trade with the world’s second-largest economy becomes more settled. The trade dispute could not have come at a worse time for South Dakota farmers. The state was expected to produce a record amount of soybeans in 2018.


Federal authorities in South Dakota were pursuing a fraud investigation into the boyfriend of a woman accused of being a covert Russian agent. An attorney for Maria Butina, who in December agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge for trying to infiltrate conservative political groups in the U.S., said his client is not “aware of or guilty of any crimes” in South Dakota. Defense lawyer Robert Driscoll told The Associated Press that Butina knew “very little” about the case against South Dakota businessman Paul Erickson.


A South Dakota case led the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn two decades-old high court decisions that made it tougher for states to collect sales taxes for certain purchases online. The high court ruled in June that South Dakota could enforce a law compelling many out-of-state businesses to collect taxes on sales made to its residents. Shoppers heading online to purchase holiday gifts have discovered they are being charged sales tax at some websites where they weren’t before.


A South Dakota businessman and philanthropist agreed to donate $100 million to the National University System, a nonprofit that focuses on education and philanthropy initiatives. The donation by T. Denny Sanford is the largest in the nonprofit’s history and comes a year after Sanford gave $28 million to the network, which supports students looking for alternative ways to learn.

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