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Bills on state airplane use, Noem's travel costs to be heard Wednesday by Senate committees
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Bills on state airplane use, Noem's travel costs to be heard Wednesday by Senate committees

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Gov. Kristi Noem

PIERRE | Two senate committees will hear bills Wednesday that require the Department of Transportation to report aircraft usage for state purposes and other state agencies to disclose some expenditures related to protection and security of the governor.

The hearings follow Gov. Kristi Noem's request for $5 million for a new state airplane and her extensive travel while campaigning for former President Donald Trump, out-of-state fundraisers for her own campaign, and numerous events for other Republican candidates and causes.

SB 153 will be heard Wednesday by the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill would outline quarterly reporting requirements for the Department of Transportation's airplane fleet to the Joint Committee on Appropriations. The report would include details regarding the purpose, persons and costs of operating the aircraft, which agency or person is paying to use the aircraft, and the destinations the aircraft is traveling to.

The bill was authored by Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, and co-sponsored by two Democratic senators and eight Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Earlier this week, an open records request on behalf of the online news site Raw Story showed a limited spreadsheet outlining the use of a state-owned plane for Noem's travel. It did not disclose what events the aircraft was used for, the specific costs for each trip, or who was onboard the plane.

In 2006, South Dakota voters passed Initiated Measure 5, limiting the use of the airplane fleet to state business. Noem's staff has said the trips across the country campaigning as a Trump surrogate were paid for by the respective campaigns and either took place on commercial aircraft or planes supplied by those campaigns.

Heinert said his bill would further clarify what the state's planes are actually being used for and as an additional checkpoint for Measure 5.

Troy Heinert

Troy Heinert

“We recognized this was going to be a concern. Several of us have had constituents reach out prior to the plane logs becoming public," Heinert said. "The governor’s travel has become a central theme in the calls we’re getting. Both Sen. (Reynold) Nesiba and I have bills that will create more transparency and ensure taxpayer dollars are being used properly.”

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Nesiba's bill, SB 165, amends state law by clarifying that certain direct or indirect expenditures related to protecting or providing security to the governor are not exempt or restricted from full disclosure. The measure is scheduled for a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee. It is co-sponsored by Heinert and five Democratic members in the House of Representatives.

The legislation makes it clear that costs associated with meals, lodging, travel and compensation for the governor's security detail are not exempt from disclosure.

Reynold Nesiba

Reynold Nesiba

Members of the South Dakota Highway Patrol accompany the governor to provide security when she travels. The Noem administration has either declined or delayed public records requests by the Journal for her travel costs.

A similar bill requiring disclosure of the governor's security costs, HB 1089 authored by Rep. Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City, was killed Feb. 5 after she faced backlash from members of her own party.

Taffy Howard

Taffy Howard

Nesiba, a Democrat from Sioux Falls, said his measure tries to address some of the concerns that caused Howard's bill to be sent to the 41st legislative day.

“As a member of Joint Appropriations, the proper use of tax dollars is always a top priority," Nesiba said. "The public has expressed disappointment with the lack of information surrounding both use of the plane and the cost of the security detail that travels with the governor. We can have transparency and safety at the same time and that’s what my bill addresses.”

Howard previously told the Journal that if the vote was closer on her bill, she would try a “smoke-out” in the House, which means bringing the bill to the floor for a vote. Howard said she will continue to argue that the security costs for the governor's frequent trips should be released.

Heinert said he is confident that members of both parties will support the bills during their Wednesday hearings.

"It’s our responsibility as legislators to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," he said. "If you care about transparency in government, I encourage you to reach out to your legislators and ask them to support these bills.”

Contact Nathan Thompson at nathan.thompson@rapidcityjournal.com.

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