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OUR VIEW: Don't spend our money to send legislators to political events

When South Dakota legislators attend the committee or board meetings of a nationwide, nonpartisan association of lawmakers from across the country, it's reasonable to pay the legislators' expenses with the public's money.

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When legislators attend political events, that's a different matter. Republican legislators have no business using the tax dollars of Democrats, independents, minor-party members or non-politically affiliated citizens to pay for a lawmaker's attendance at a political gathering.

Yet that's exactly what is happening.

Our state Legislature's Executive Board approved a reimbursement policy last week for legislator travel to meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council. Don't let the name fool you. ALEC sounds like a nonpartisan group of lawmakers from around the country, but it's really a conservative group advocating conservative policies. In other words, it's a glorified lobbying firm.

There's nothing wrong with ALEC itself. The organization is free to conduct its affairs as it sees fit. And there's nothing wrong with legislators joining ALEC. Our legislators' participation in ALEC only crosses the line when they expect us, the taxpayers, to pay their way to attend what amounts to a Republican caucus meeting (in fact, ALEC's name when it was founded in the 1970s was the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators).

ALEC is one of four national legislative groups for which legislators get reimbursed when they attend a meeting. They also get paid for travel to the meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and the Midwestern Legislative Conference. Those three groups are nonpartisan or bipartisan in nature, and reimbursement for travel to their events is reasonable. No particular political philosophy is espoused at those meetings.

Beyond the political ramifications, this issue also has a financial impact. So far this fiscal year, which ends June 30, a total of $89,001 has been paid to legislators for travel to the four groups' meetings, according to the Legislative Research Council. The biggest share -- $42,520 -- has been spent for ALEC meetings, followed by $20,503 for NCSL, $19,965 for MLC and $6,013 for CSG.

So, why are legislators using South Dakota's taxpayers to pay the ALEC portion of those costs? It's a byproduct of the Legislature's political imbalance. Republicans outnumber Democrats 81-24. Some Republicans have decided to use their numbers advantage to access taxpayer money for their political trips. It's unfortunate and short-sighted. If the tables are ever turned, will Republicans want Democrats funding their own trips to liberal-minded national association meetings? We doubt it.

Meanwhile, we applaud Sen. Craig Tieszen, of Rapid City, for being the only Republican on the Legislature's Executive Board to recognize how wrong it is to reimburse legislators for their travel to ALEC meetings. Tieszen voted no on the reimbursement policy with two Democrats, but they lost the argument to 10 other legislators on the board.

Because of that, your money will continue to pay for legislators' travel to politically motivated national gatherings, whether or not you agree with the brand of politics being preached.