SD’s attempt at an anti-nepotism law went nowhere


Our recent report on the pay bump of Governor Kristi Noem’s daughter, who works in her office, has tens of thousands of you talking.

But the practice of employing family is a long-standing tradition in the governor’s office in South Dakota.

An effort to enact anti-nepotism laws in South Dakota failed in the last legislative session.

More than 30 states have some kind of anti-nepotism law when it comes to state government officials. Most prohibit officials from hiring a relative to work directly under them.

North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa all have anti-nepotism laws. 

South Dakota tried to get one off the ground last year, which was based on North Dakota’s law, but it never made it out of committee. 

Senate Bill 39 was unanimously defeated in the Senate State Affairs Committee. 

It was introduced by former Republican Senator Stace Nelson, who recently retired from his position. Nelson came forward with the bill after seeing our original KELOLAND News report on Governor Noem’s hiring of Kennedy Noem in 2018.

“When the KELOLAND News story came out about this situation, where our governor, who came to Pierre to combat the culture of corruptions, when one of her first things was to hire her daughter–it made statewide news across the state. And again I was in the uncomfortable position of seeing someone I supported over the years, doing something that was inherently wrong,” Former State Senator Stace Nelson said during the South Dakota Senate State Affairs Committee meeting on January 23, 2019.

Nelson said he had supported Governor Daugaard’s practice of hiring relatives, but heard from his constituents after the Noem story came out and changed his mind.

“Nepotism is government corruption. That’s a fact. South Dakota unfortunately has a long history of this. Unfortunately we have a lot of Stace Nelsons who have turned a blind eye to it over the years because of partisan purposes,” Nelson said on January 23.

Senator Lance Russell of Rapid City testified that he disagreed with Governor Daugaard making his son in law, Tony Venhuizen, his chief of staff.

“We had someone who was chief of staff who was related to the governor. And it wasn’t a good situation from a number of standpoints. You’re trying to negotiate with the governor with someone he potentially cannot fire or discipline for whatever reason,” Rep. Senator Lance Russell said to the Senate State Affairs Committee on January 23.

While no opponents to the bill testified before the committee, committee members like Senator Brock Greenfield were against it. Greenfield is from the same district as Governor Noem and the two served in the State House together.

“I know she’s a woman of integrity and she’s a woman of faith and she wears that faith on her sleeve. And I do believe she will hold her daughter or her relatives who happen to be elected to account. And I believe she will hire and fire them accordingly. I have it on good authority that she did choose to fire one of her family members. Somewhere along the way,” Rep. Senator Brock Greenfield said to the Senate State Affairs Committee on Jan. 23rd.

Senator Greenfield argued taking family members out of the applicant pool would hurt South Dakota. 

“Is South Dakota any better by limiting the pool of who’s available to work in State government? Everybody has relatives that they serve under or for or over. It’s pretty hard to find that degree of separation that would make anybody 100% innocent of what’s being alleged here,” Greenfield said on January 23.

Legislators on the Senate State Affairs committee also said an anti-nepotism law would mean that legislators couldn’t bring in relatives to work as pages at the Capitol.

When Senator Rounds was governor, he also employed family members and dozens of them worked within state government. 

Last year, in Iowa, Governor Reynolds came under fire for appointing her father to a state panel to vet judicial candidates. His position is unpaid. Iowa’s law, however, only stops officials from hiring a relative to work in their office or agency, although there are some exceptions.

KELOLAND News reached out to the governor’s office asking about Kennedy Noem’s added responsibilities to prompt a wage hike. We also asked about the governor’s son-in-law wage hike.

Here is the governor’s office response:

Kennedy Noem’s salary increased after she was assigned more duties and her workload increased. Those duties included additional legislative review and analysis, coordination of policy agenda with cabinet members and liaison for the governor to federal agencies.

Steve Westra responded by saying: “Kyle Peters is a strong member of our team. His salary is in line with what other business representatives and the work he does to help bring new business to the state is second to none.”

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