South Dakota lawmakers seek investigation of foreign-owned land

PIERRE, SD (AP) – South Dakota lawmakers are advancing a series of bills that would limit Chinese influence on South Dakota farmlands amid concerns among Republican leaders after a spy balloon was sighted and shot down in South Dakota. last week.

Republican Representative Will Mortenson proposed Thursday that partnerships between landowners and foreign entities be investigated. It comes a week after other lawmakers made other proposals addressing foreign influence, such as banning contracts between state lands and foreign countries and setting up a committee to oversee future foreign purchases.

“We don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re going to start finding out so we can take the next step,” Mortenson said, after his bill was voted unanimously by the house committee.

The proposals stem from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s recent history of curbing the state’s relationship with China. Last year, he banned state employees and contractors from accessing video platform TikTok on state-owned devices, citing its ties to China. He also said late last year that the state has not made direct investments in China after a review.

Noem’s emphasis on her perception of the threats posed by China comes as she plans a series of three Washington policy speeches that appear to herald the launch of a possible 2024 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Next week, according to a person familiar with Noem’s plans, Noem will use one of three speeches — a Feb. 15 speech at the America First Policy Institute — to highlight South Dakota’s response to the threat posed by the Communist Party of China. He will also discuss an executive order, which Noem signed last month, barring the state from doing business with certain telecommunications companies owned or controlled by “evil foreign governments,” including China, according to the executive order. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not yet authorized to speak publicly about Noem’s plans.

Alan Vester, Noem’s deputy general counsel, testified Thursday in support of the bill that would provide more information about how much South Dakota land is owned by foreign governments.

“Gov. Kristi Noem is a strong believer in protecting our state from vilified foreign governments by acquiring foreign farmland at the expense of our state’s security, critical infrastructure or food security,” Vester said.

Last week, Republican Senator Erin Tobin proposed a bill to create the US Foreign Investment Committee to regulate foreign purchases of farmland by foreign buyers. This oversight is intended to curb international influence in the state’s food supply and will be further heard by a Senate committee on agriculture and natural resources on Feb. 14.

Tobin has been in discussions with states like North Dakota, where the Chinese government has bought a tract of land near their air base. He said he has opened the eyes of the rest of the country to the lack of knowledge about who is taking ownership of state land and for what purpose, such as spying. The committee would take a deep dive to investigate the motives behind any overseas purchase by looking into the buyer’s history.

“You realize China is walking in the front door and nobody is placing restrictions on anything,” Tobin said. “When you really start paying attention and watching what’s going on, you worry even more.”

Foreign entities and individuals control less than 3 percent of U.S. farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that, those with ties to China control less than 1%, or about 600 square miles (340 square kilometers).


Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard contributed to this report from Columbia, South Carolina.

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