SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Behind the controversy surrounding the use of the state plane is a 2006 law and a 2021 complaint regarding how the public aircraft can be used. Both were brought forward by the same South Dakota lawmaker.
Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) was a part of a concerted effort in 2006 to bring some accountability to the use of the state plane frequently used by the governor and state employees. At the time, there was concern that then-Governor Mike Rounds was using the aircraft for political and personal reasons and so Nesiba sought to find a way to hold the users of the plane accountable.
“The attorney general explanation says state law currently allows state employees to use vehicles owned or leased by the state only for state business,” Nesiba explained in a phone call to KELOLAND News on Thursday. “There’s a limited exception for state employees with a supervisor’s approval. The governor and certain law enforcement personnel are exempt. The proposed law requires aircraft owned or leased by the state to be used only for state business with no exceptions.”
In addition to wanting to keep the plane from being used for non-state business, Nesiba said there were other concerns as well.
“I mean, part of this concern back in 2006 was it wasn’t that many years after the terrible tragedy of Governor Mickelson and others been killed in that in that plane crash. And so there was also a sense that this is a liability concern for the state,” Nesiba said.
The measure ended up passing, 55-44 becoming state law.
While there was some opposition to the measure, Nesiba said the support came down to South Dakotans’ dislike of public assets being used for political or personal use.
“I think in a state like South Dakota, we are conservative, we want to be good stewards of state assets,” he said. “And this seems like an appropriate set of rules to make sure that our state assets are used in that way.”
At the time, Nesiba didn’t think the law would need to be enforced but rather would serve as a reminder to future governors to be “prudent stewards” of the state plane.
But in February of 2021, the senator had some concerns when it came to how Governor Kristi Noem was using the plane and whether it was in accordance with the law he helped create.
“Governor Noem has acted as if it’s her airplane, she forgets that it’s our airplane and the people of South Dakota who pay for that airplane have set very clear rules. We only want it to be used for state business,” Nesiba said.
Nesiba said he supports the use of the plane and any additional security needed to protect the governor, but only if those trips are established as state business.
In a letter sent to then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, which can be read here, Nesiba asks Ravnsborg to clarify whether Governor Noem violated SDCL 5-25-1.1. The letter alleges that Noem may have used the state airplane for campaign use and also may have been accompanied by non-state employees for non-state purposes.
“While I understand these questions are complex in nature, our state government’s trust hangs in the balance. With that in mind, I urge your office to expeditiously investigate and take appropriate action,” the letter reads.
That letter was then passed from the AG’s office to the Government Accountability Board. In late August of 2022, the board referred the complaint back to the Attorney General’s office for further investigation.
That move worries Nesiba.
“Now we have an attorney general who has just been put in office by Governor Noem, who’s the person under investigation,” Nesiba said. “And so I think that the Attorney General really needs to appoint an independent counsel to be able to investigate this to make it clear that this is somebody who is neutral and not somebody who is working for the governor doing the investigation.”
Nesiba added he believes an independent investigation would be in Noem’s favor as well saying that it would create less doubt for the people of South Dakota if they know the investigation was done in the most neutral way possible.
Nesiba thinks an independent investigation could also bring further clarity to the law so that future governors know the exact parameters of the law.
In order to create more transparency, Nesiba also pointed to neighboring Minnesota and the use of their state plane by Governor Tim Walz.
“I noticed in the last month or two that Governor Walz in Minnesota, he had tweeted that there had been an audit of his use of the airplane. And he had used the airplane 22 times and all were deemed appropriate for state business. And so it was part of a broader report,” Nesiba said.
He went on to say that he believes that South Dakota needs a system similar to that in which a regular audit of the state plane use is conducted and made available to the public.
“Maybe we just need to have a process by which this is routinely looked at either internally in the department of transportation or from Legislative Audit, to just do a review,” Nesiba said. “So this isn’t a political gotcha. It’s just an ongoing process of saying, you know, just a reminder, this is our state airplane, you should only use it for state business.”