Did political ties lead S.D. legislators to back off bill seeking to reveal governor’s security costs?

Capitol News Bureau
KELO South Dakota capitol Pierre legislature

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Years of personal rivalries and broader internal divisions between South Dakota Republican Party factions are suddenly surfacing at the state Capitol because of legislation that would require South Dakota’s governor to disclose how much of taxpayers’ money she has spent on protection and security for herself and her family.

The dispute is over House Bill 1089, whose prime sponsor is Republican Representative Taffy Howard of Rapid City, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations that oversees all aspects of state government’s spending.

Howard wants the Legislature and the public to find out how much Republican Governor Kristi Noem is spending on security, not only as she travels throughout South Dakota, but also as she campaigned throughout the United States last year for the re-election of Republican President Donald Trump. and more recently for the re-election of two Republicans for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. All three lost.

Meanwhile, there’s now also a visible symbol of the heightened emphasis on security: A spiked fence eight feet tall, complete with locked gates that are passcard-protected, around the governor’s mansion. The work was completed in December, at Noem’s direction, at a contracted cost of up to $462,000. The governor’s senior policy advisor, Maggie Seidel, said in August the project would use a combination of federal grant funds and private funds but wouldn’t disclose what those amounts would be.

What’s happened in recent days is three of the original Republican co-sponsors of Howard’s legislation suddenly withdrew their names from the bill, reportedly after private talks with Governor Noem.

Meanwhile Howard said she’s now the subject of a meme circulating on the internet, showing her next to Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic U.S. Senate leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris, and asking, “Why is South Dakota ‘Republican’ Taffy Howard working with Liberal Democrats to attack Conservative Governor Kristi Noem?”

The meme further asks, “Why is Taffy Howard joining South Dakota’s most liberal/ Anti Trump Democrats in attacking Gov. Noem for campaigning to beat Joe Biden? Call Taffy Howard at (phone number) and tell her to stop being used by the Biden Dems and to support Governor Noem!” Howard told KELOLAND News Thursday her phone has been “blowing up” with calls.

Noem for her part Thursday declined several times to address the growing controversy. Asked during a news conference by KELOLAND News reporter Tom Hanson what releasing the security costs to lawmakers had to do with her safety, and whether the costs were being reimbursed in any way, Noem gave what amounted to a non-answer: “Well again, I don’t talk about security. I don’t believe any governor ever has in this state, and we’ll continue to follow that legislation.”

Noem gave much the same non-answer during the same news conference to another reporter’s question about how she could square her secrecy on security with the transparency promises she made while running for governor in 2018.

The three Republicans who dropped off Howard’s security-costs bill are Representative Rhonda Milstead of Hartford, Senator David Johnson of Rapid City and Representative Marli Wiese of Madison. All three have reasons to support the governor, rather than Howard.

Perhaps the most significant motivation for Milstead is that she owes her place in the Legislature to Governor Noem.

Noem appointed Milstead in December 2018 to the House seat that long-time lawmaker Deb Peters had won in the 2018 election but decided to not take.

The choice of Milstead, who is married to Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead, came during the final month Dennis Daugaard was governor. Daugaard let Noem make the announcement. The web gets more complex because Daugaard’s son in law Tony Venhuizen is now Noem’s chief of staff, her third in two years. (The news release announcing the appointment is at https://news.sd.gov/newsitem.aspx?id=24091.)

David Johnson’s political background is more complicated. He was a House member in 2018 when he became involved in an exchange on the House floor with then-lawmaker Lynne DiSanto of Rapid City that was caught on security video. The House leadership assigned a special committee to investigate him.

The investigation was dropped after Johnson publicly apologized. DiSanto posted a statement on her Facebook page that said:

I’ve had a lot of messages regarding the situation with Rep Johnson. Here is where I’m at: The incident that occurred was not ‘two people engaging in a heated argument,’ as some have claimed. This is not a ‘he said, she said,’ there were several witnesses. Rep. Johnson has apologized to me privately and I’ve accepted his apology. Some have accused me of being ‘weak’ or a ‘snowflake.’ I’ve had messages from people saying they are happy I had this happen to me, and deserved it.

The truth is Pierre is a male dominated environment, but I’m comfortable there holding my own. I’m not weak or a snowflake. I’ve engaged in hundreds of debates and heated battles with men and women. That is part of the job, and I’m equipped to battle anyone that way. However, what happened on [Wednesday] following session wasn’t a heated debate. I feared for my safety as did the majority of onlookers. This is why a couple of people intervened to restrain the other party.

DiSanto went on to win a Senate seat in the 2018 election, but she resigned from it effective December 31, 2019, after she had already moved to Montana. Governor Noem appointed Jessica Castleberry of Rapid City to fill the vacancy. (DiSanto, who began using the first name Lyndi, became a focus of attention when she pushed for the search for nine-year-old Serenity Dennard, who walked away from Black Hills Children’s Home at Rockerville two years ago and has never been found. The search was suspended earlier this week.)

Johnson meanwhile won election twice since the 2018 incident, most recently to the Senate in November. He runs a tree-service business in Rapid City, and brought a company truck to Pierre in October 2019 to help plant a tree honoring Noem in Governor’s Grove.

Johnson works closely with the governor-appointed state Aeronautics Commission. He has taken over the long push for the commission to get money returned to it that the Legislature took a decade ago. Governor Noem announced in her December budget-recommendations speech that she favors restoring the money to the commission.

Her support for the effort is reflected in SB 162 from Republican Senator Blake Curd of Sioux Falls, a pilot. Johnson, who serves with Howard on the appropriations committee, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Curd’s bill would appropriate $4 million to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development for “route restoration, business development, and air service marketing grants to help restore air service to airports in the state” and another $300,000 to GOED to “be used by essential air service airports for marketing.”

Representative Marli Wiese meanwhile has reasons to be allegiant to the office of governor itself. She came to her seat through appointment by Governor Daugaard in January 2017, after Representative Mathew Wollman resigned. That announcement is at https://news.sd.gov/newsitem.aspx?id=21439

This term, House Republicans chose Wiese as one of five whips. Those mid-level leadership spots are the legislative equivalent of platoon leaders in the military and each whip has a group of Republican House members she or he meets with on a regular basis about legislation.

Page 1 of House leadership 2020 chart
Contributed to DocumentCloud by Karen Sherman (KELO-TV) • View document or read text

Howard’s current co-sponsors on the security-spending bill are now four Democrats — Representative Linda Duba of Sioux Falls and Senator Reynold Nesiba of Sioux Falls, who serve on the appropriations panel with her, and Representative Erin Healy of Sioux Falls and Representative Jennifer Keintz of Eden — and three Republican House members: Aaron Aylward, a first-year legislator from Harrisburg; Phil Jensen, a veteran lawmaker from Rapid City; and Tony Randolph from Rapid City.

Howard, Jensen and Randolph are among the hardest-line conservatives in the Legislature and their legislation has rarely if ever become law. In the appropriations committee, Howard has raised many difficult questions about reasons for state government agencies’ spending.

Nor is Jensen a favorite with the current administration. He was the senator who called for action against then-Senate Republican leader Kris Langer of Dell Rapids and then-Senate president pro tempore Brock Greenfield of Clark for their drinking at a house party on the final night of the 2020 session last March.

One of the others at the late-hours gathering, at a lobbyist’s residence a block from the Capitol, was Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden, the governor’s running mate. Noem has given Rhoden perhaps the most-prominent role for a lieutenant governor in South Dakota’s history, on a level beyond even Walter Dale Miller during Governor George S. Mickelson’s administration three decades ago.

The Senate panel’s investigation didn’t look into Rhoden’s presence at the party, however. After hours of testimony, including admissions from Langer and Greenfield they had been drinking, and cross-examination of witnesses by their defense attorney, former Attorney General Marty Jackley (whom Noem defeated in the 2018 Republican primary for the nomination), the panel admonished the two.

Langer later withdrew from seeking re-election to her Senate seat. Greenfield was unopposed for re-election to his seat, but he wasn’t chosen for another term as Senate president pro tem.

Senate Republicans choose, in a private meeting every even-numbered November, who will hold the post of president pro tem for the coming two years. It is the chamber’s most important post. As the highest ranking member, the president pro tem has responsibilities such as assigning committee memberships and deciding which bills are assigned to which committees. The pro tem also presides over the Senate when the lieutenant governor isn’t there. Republican Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown holds the post this term.

As for Howard’s effort to force Noem to reveal her security costs, the legislation appears to be on life support. Its first hearing will be in the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Republican Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids. He is part of the House Republican leadership team as speaker pro tem.

Republicans have super-majorities in both chambers — 32 of 35 seats in the Senate, and 62 of 70 seats in the House — but there appears to be little willingness so far to tangle with their political party’s governor on the security issue, making passage of Howard’s bill unlikely.

Noteworthy is that no Republican senator has volunteered to co-sponsor her bill. If it would somehow pass, Noem could still use her veto authority as governor to try to keep it from becoming law. That would raise an even more unlikely scenario: Howard mustering two-thirds majorities in both chambers necessary to override the veto.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Continuing The Conversation
See Full Weather Forecast

Trending Stories

Don't Miss!

More Don't Miss