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ALEC attendance will continue to be reimbursed for lawmakers

PIERRE -- The Legislature's Executive Board renewed its travel-reimbursement policy for another year Thursday, including compensation for attending American Legislative Exchange Council events.

The ALEC provision caused the board members to split 10-3 for approval. House Democrats Spencer Hawley, of Brookings, and Kathy Tyler, of Big Stone City, joined Republican Sen. Craig Tieszen, of Rapid City, in voting against it.

The policy, which took effect immediately and extends through June 30, 2015, is essentially the same as the previous policy with some minor changes in wording.

Tieszen called the inclusion of ALEC "troublesome" and said ALEC "isn't compatible" with the three other organizations -- National Conference of State Legislatures, Council of State Governments and Midwestern Legislative Conference -- for which travel expenses are reimbursed.

"I am really disappointed we are funding (ALEC)," said Hawley.

ALEC operates with a legislator and a business representative as co-chairs for its committees. Two of the other organizations operate solely with legislators in their leadership, while state government officials, including legislators, comprise CSG.

The Legislature's policy says a legislator who is a member of a committee for one of the four organizations will be reimbursed for travel expenses. The policy further states any member of the executive governing board for one of the four organizations will be reimbursed for travel to attend board meetings.

The policy also explicitly says ALEC dues are eligible to be reimbursed.

There are provisions, too, for travel reimbursement to legislators and individuals appointed to the national Streamlined Sales Tax Project, the Uniform Laws Commission, the Education Commission of the States and Legislative Forum.

From there, the line is drawn. "All legislative out-of-state travel not in accordance with the guidance received in the memorandum will not be reimbursed," the policy says.

It adds that all requests for travel need approval by the Executive Board's chairman, and any legislator who wishes to attend a national meeting without seeking reimbursement may do so without prior approval.

House Speaker Brian Gosch disagreed with the comments of Tieszen, Hawley and Tyler.

"The same people are at all three," Gosch, R-Rapid City, said about ALEC, CSG and NCSL meetings. "There's not some conspiracy or oddness or strangeness to it."

Gosch suggested that legislators should see an ALEC meeting before taking a position against the Legislature funding travel for ALEC meetings.

Tyler had suggested legislators get a flat amount, such as $2,000, annually for travel to meetings where they can develop their knowledge on issues.

She said "not all legislators" want to serve on a national committee, and the $2,000 would provide more legislators with opportunities, such as attending the governor's agriculture summit later this year.

Challenges to Tyler's concept came from a variety of Republicans, including Sen. Deb Peters, of Hartford, and Rep. Lance Carson, of Mitchell.

Tyler agreed there would need to be parameters of some kind. "I don't know that yet," she said.

Rep. Steve Westra, R-Sioux Falls, asked if any legislators have been refused travel.

The answer was a surprising "yes" from the chairman, Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel.

"I denied legislators this last year," Maher said.

He discussed several situations, such as a legislator who wasn't a CSG member who wanted to go to a CSG conference in Alaska. Maher said the first thing he does when he gets a travel request is call the Legislative Research Council office to find out whether a lawmaker meets the qualifications set in the policy.

The board also discussed a new state rule that requires travel vouchers to be submitted to the state auditor for review within 60 days of the trip's date of return.

The board set a 30-day window for vouchers to be given to LRC staff for internal processing before being sent to the state auditor.

Maher had a surprising comment, too, regarding travel vouchers.

"There are members of the legislative body who like to take eight to 10 months to file a travel voucher," he said.

There were murmurs of disbelief and some "really?" facial expressions around the table.

"Yes," Maher said. "Yes."