Democracy Center opens in Sioux Falls, as Medicaid expansion, cannabis and redistricting by committee advocates join forces — The South Dakota Standard – The South Dakota Standard
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They are calling it the Democracy Center, and quoting the state motto, “Under God The People Rule.”
Supporters of proposed ballot measures calling for Medicaid expansion, medical and recreational use of cannabis, changing newly created city policies on medical cannabis in Sioux Falls, and redistricting by commission, have come together at one location. It’s a drive-up facility at 1911 S. Minnesota Ave. in Sioux Falls, on the west side of the street between 27th and 28th Streets.
A grand opening was held on Wednesday morning, and people were stopping by to sign petitions, gather more information and grab some free coffee and doughnuts.
The center’s opening was announced by Dakotans for Health, a grassroots organization that has been circulating an initiated constitutional amendment since last November to expand Medicaid in South Dakota.
(Editor’s note: Pictured above, Dakotans for Health Grassroots Organizer Pam Cole – on the left – chats with Laura Larsen as Larsen and Merwin Foster of Sioux Falls sign petitions for Medicaid expansion and a commission to draw boundaries for state legislative districts at The Democracy Center at 1911 S. Minnesota Ave. in Sioux Falls on Wednesday afternoon. Volunteer Betty DeBerg is in the background. Photo by Tom Lawrence)
Pam Cole, a former state senator from Brookings who served a year as executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, was in charge of collecting signatures. Cole, now the grassroots organizer for Dakotans for Health, was assisted by a group of volunteers, including former state Sen. Sandy Jerstad of Sioux Falls and Betty DeBerg.
They were outside, with a windswept canvass serving as a shield from the cold and gusts of wind.
“The weather’s getting better,” said Cole, a ceaseless optimist.
The deadline is drawing near to gather enough signatures, so the center will be open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Sunday, Nov. 7. Petitions for constitutional amendments on Medicaid expansion and redistricting are due the next day.
Supporters need to gather 33,921 for each to qualify for the ballot, but Cole said they hope to collect at least 40,000, since some signers may not be registered voters.
Initiated measures, which alter state law, not the Constitution, need just 17,000 signatures. Those petitions aren’t due until the second Tuesday in May.
Although South Dakota voters approved both recreational and medical marijuana in 2020, legal challenges have blocked the introduction of recreational use. The matter is before the state Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling at some point this year.
Just to be sure, cannabis advocates will try to collect signatures for both a constitutional amendment and an initiated measure for recreational use. Those petitions weren’t at the facility Wednesday but should be there this week, Cole said.
People will be present to collect petition signatures, recruit volunteers and provide updates on these initiatives including Amendment C, the Legislature’s most recent impediment to pass measures like Medicaid expansion and cannabis reforms.
“The plan is to be visible,” Cole said.
She is a wealth of information on the issues, particularly Medicaid expansion. South Dakota has turned down $3 billion in federal dollars in the last decade, she said, at a rate of $300 million per year.
That’s one reason Laura Larsen and Merwin Foster of Sioux Falls stopped by to sign petitions.
“I think we should have better health care for our citizens,” Larsen said. “It’s ridiculous people can’t get the health care they need.”
Cole said Medicaid expansion would not only provide needed help for South Dakotans who need it, it would allow people to get off disability and join the workforce.
“It is a job expansion program,” she said.
It also would boost the state economy, Cole argues. A decade ago, South and North Dakota had almost identical per-person incomes. North Dakota signed up for Medicaid expansion through Obamacare, while its twin did not.
Now, Cole said, the per-capita income in North Dakota is $12,000 higher than it is for South Dakotans.
Earlier this year, the South Dakota Legislature placed Amendment C on the June 2022 primary ballot. It’s a constitutional amendment requiring 60% approval for citizen ballot initiatives like Medicaid expansion, or anything that would raise taxes or allocate spending $10 million or more over a five-years period.
A similar effort to derail ballot measures was attempted — and defeated — in 2018.
Dakotans for Health asked the state Supreme Court to place this on the November 2022 ballot, which would have a far larger turnout than a June primary election. But the Supreme Court rejected that in a 5-0 vote.
Dakotans for Health is now asking people to sign a petition vowing to vote no on Amendment C in June. That’s another one of the petitions available at the Democracy Center.
“Despite continual efforts by a one-party-dominated Legislature and Governor Kristi Noem, to thwart the will of the people, this first time ever Democracy Center will make it easier for people to sign petitions and learn more about recents actions by the South Dakota Legislature to harm South Dakotans constitutional right to collect signatures and advance public policy through the citizen initiative process, which has been part of our state’s constitution since 1898,” according to a release.
Cole said she thinks they will obtain enough signatures to get on the ballot. She is determined to try hard to make that happen.
“We’re not going to give up,” Cole said. “We’re not going to stop.”
Tom Lawrence has written for several newspapers and websites in South Dakota and other states and contributed to NPR, The London Telegraph, The Daily Beast and other media outlets.
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