PIERRE, S.D. — It was a double loss for transparency advocates on Wednesday, Feb. 17, at the South Dakota Statehouse, as two legislative measures backed by Democrats that sought to pry open daylight into the jet-setting Gov. Kristi Noem's travels and security costs met their demise in committee hearings.
Filed weeks prior to an investigative report published earlier this week from Raw Story found that taxpayers footed "tens of thousands" in Noem's travel to political and personal events, such as a daughter's wedding, aboard state-owned aircraft in 2019, Senate Bill 153 sought to require quarterly reporting by the South Dakota Department of Transportation on the governor's use of state-owned aircraft.
But the bill faced stiff opposition from Republicans on the Senate State Affairs committee, who rallied to support their governor amid arguments that the data sought was publicly available and that compiling a report would be burdensome.
"I think this bill really is politically motivated more than related to the efficiency of running the state government," said Sen. Michael Diedrich (R-Rapid City).
Bill Nevin, an attorney with SDDOT, also lamented the "substantial time and resources" staff would need to compile the plane's logbook.
The measure's prime sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert (D-Mission) said he was flabbergasted by that complaint.
"The opposition is that it (the bill) would require them to do reporting," said Heinert. "Obviously, that's what this bill is requiring because it's not happening now."
There were no other committee comments, and the measure was voted on party lines to the 41st day of the legislative session.
Another crack at security detail bill
The governor's political supporters easily dispatched a second effort at a separate measure to force into public light taxpayers' cost for funding the governor's security detail earlier on Wednesday.
While staff says Noem — who has made frequent out-of-state trips on political business — pays for expenses related to political travel from her campaign funds, she's acknowledged public coffers fund her security team, provided by the South Dakota State Highway Patrol.
In a repeat affair from earlier this month, when a nearly identical measure backed by Rep. Taffy Howard (R-Rapid City) was shot down in the House, the Senate Transportation committee beat back Senate Bill 165 amid argument that placing a dollar amount on security matters would leave the governor vulnerable would-be harm-doers.
"Perpetrators pay attention," said Craig Price, South Dakota Secretary of Public Safety, who warned even spelling out expenses on day-trips by the governor's team to places such as Blunt, which is 20 miles from Pierre, may tip off bad actors to security postures.
Prime sponsor Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) reiterated calls for protecting public officials, including Noem, but argued that the state constitution specifies revenue from the state's Motor Fuel Tax, which he said funds the state highway patrol, is only spent on road safety.
Nesiba quoted former President Ronald Reagan saying he wanted to "trust (but) verify" the state was legally spending those funds.
Sen. Larry Zikmund (R-Sioux Falls) commented that he never imagined a security fence would be needed to be erected around the governor's mansion, as officials did last year, but times changed. The funding amount, or source, did not bother him.
"She's the governor," said Zikmund. "And we have to keep her safe."
The measure died for lack of a second.
Many state agencies across the country have reported on security measures with high-profile governors in recent years.
Washington State spent an additional $2 million annually to beef up the number of security officers for Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, who ran for president, according to reporting from The Seattle Times. In 2014, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker saw his security costs balloon over 200% following the statewide protests against a law that stripped collective bargaining rights for educators.
University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, who studies government transparency, told Forum News Service that he didn't know enough about the specifics of South Dakota law to comment directly on Noem's staff's claim that divulging a cost would leave the governor vulnerable, but he said the claims made by staff fit a pattern of obstruction toward openness seen around the country.
"It's the kind of open-ended claim that is all too frequent where laws are vague or allow it, and where the legislature supports the Governor, as apparently is true in SD," said Fenster via email.
Fenster added it was "really difficult" to see how a lump sum of money — as requested by Nesiba's bill — would endanger a public official.