Bill to make public Gov. Kristi Noem’s taxpayer-funded security costs is killed

The measure’s prime sponsor, Rep. Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City, noted that South Dakota would join a multitude of states — including Montana, Washington State, Florida and Texas — that report out the security costs associated with protecting their governor.

But Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Public Safety Craig Price said airing a dollar figure for Noem’s security, which is provided by highway patrol officers, could lead to “bad actors” extrapolating the details of “size” or other “details” that put the governor at risk.

“Ask yourself, ‘Does your family want you to be less safe?'” said Price, who rose in opposition to HB 1089 in the House State Affairs Committee.

For nearly 20 minutes, bill proponents — including some South Dakotans, testifying remotely, who said they politically supported the governor — called for the need for transparency in government spending, even in sensitive matters such as a high-ranking official’s security detail.

“One of the positive things about living in South Dakota is that we are one of the only states left where the government is safe and can be trusted,” said Megan Colunga, of Sturgis. “I really like Gov. Noem … and I really just feel HB 1089 is a simple, effective way to build that trust.”

A South Dakota state patrolman walks the second floor of the Statehouse in Pierre, S.D., in January 2021 at the start of the legislative session. Two bills, brought by a Republican and Democrat, have sought to force disclosure of taxpayers' costs associated with providing security for Gov. Kristi Noem, which includes patrol officers detailed to protecting the governor. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

A South Dakota state patrolman walks the second floor of the Statehouse in Pierre, S.D., in January 2021 at the start of the legislative session. Two bills, brought by a Republican and Democrat, have sought to force disclosure of taxpayers’ costs associated with providing security for Gov. Kristi Noem, which includes patrol officers detailed to protecting the governor. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

Another bill supporter, Tim Waltner, of Freeman, asked the Republican-heavy committee to imagine if the shoe were on the other political foot.

“If (former Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Billie Sutton had been elected in 2018 and spent the past year traveling the state in support of Joe Biden’s campaign,” said Waltner, “I’d want to know how much the taxpayers’ spent for his security.”

The curiosity over Noem’s security detail has grown along with her national exposure. Throughout 2020 the governor traveled to battleground states, including neighboring Minnesota and down to Georgia, campaigning for Donald Trump and other candidates. Over the past few months, she’s appeared everywhere from duck hunting in Arkansas to the White House in Washington, D.C.

At all times, two members of the state highway patrol have accompanied the governor. While Noem maintains she funds her travel with campaign dollars, her office acknowledges taxpayers foot the bill for her security. Her office has frequently fought disclosure of the price of this security detail.

Last week, at a news conference in Pierre, Noem once again declined to discuss, citing her office’s silence on “security” matters.

That defense ultimately swayed the committee on Friday. Rep. Chris Johnson, R-Rapid City, said HB 1089 presented a catch-22.

“How do you evaluate whether those dollars being spent well or not if you don’t dig deeper?” asked Johnson. He then noted that to “dig further” would be dangerous as it could uncover “details that don’t need to be uncovered.”

Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, pushed back on this reasoning, saying if a citizen could deduce detailed security protocols based on a dollar-amount “then they need to be in the state capitol working for us because they’re brilliant.”

“We’re going to sit here and you can put a bland budget in and we can say, ‘Great, here’s your money?'” he asked, exasperatedly.

Ultimately, the committee killed the bill on a vote of 11-2.

“The fight’s not over,” said Taffy, in an interview with Forum News Service following the vote.

Taffy commented that after the state affairs hearing, she attended the Joint Appropriations Committee and watched as representatives with the state’s court system talked openly about their intent to hire a security officer and other safety measures in the courts.

“We’re able to know that information, but we’re not able to know what the government spends on the governor’s security detail?” she asked.

An identical Senate bill was introduced earlier this week by Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, and will receive a hearing in that chamber’s transportation committee.

Contact Vondracek at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek.