Effort to define ‘state business’ for aircraft use fails in committee
Legislation arose from Noem airplane controversy
Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her annual budget address Dec. 6, 2023, at the Capitol in Pierre. Noem heralded the value of the Bright Start program during her speech. She pushed to expand the program in 2022 and asked lawmakers to continue funding it in 2023. (Makenzie Huber/SD Searchlight)
A committee of legislators rejected an attempt Wednesday at the Capitol in Pierre to define “state business” as it pertains to the use of state aircraft.
Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, brought the bill in response to a controversy over Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of a state-owned airplane.
Testifying to the Senate Transportation Committee, Nesiba referred to Noem’s flights as “less than fully limited to state business usage.”
“Nobody wants any elected official, including us, misusing state resources for either political or personal gain,” Nesiba said.
Noem faced scrutiny for a number of state airplane flights during the past few years, including trips to out-of-state political functions and a flight from Custer and back for her daughter’s 2019 wedding at Custer State Park.
Nesiba filed a complaint about Noem’s use of state aircraft in 2021. The complaint was ultimately referred to a local prosecutor, Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie, who announced in October that there were no facts to support a criminal prosecution “under current law.” In December, the state Government Accountability Board dismissed the complaint, citing the lack of a definition of “state business” in the law.
Nesiba’s bill sought to define “state business” as “any activity directed and authorized by an office, department, institution, board, or agency of the state to advance a policy or purpose of the state entity.”
But the bill also would have introduced several more restrictions on state airplane use. It would have banned usage by “a person who is not employed by the state or is not enrolled in an aviation program.” It would have banned using or riding in a state aircraft to “attend a social, recreational, religious, political, or personal event.” And it would have required, in many cases, the taking of “the shortest and most direct route.”
Those provisions sparked opposition from Noem’s secretary of transportation, Joel Jundt, and Lake Area Technical College President Tiffany Sanderson (formerly Noem’s secretary of education). They said the bill would disallow many current uses of state aircraft by non-state employees. Those include flights for families of deceased National Guard members, wildland firefighters, local law enforcement officers, and flights by student pilots in Lake Area Tech’s aviation program, among other examples.
Jundt said the bill would have “numerous unintended consequences for state agencies.”
Nesiba drafted an amendment and asked the committee to send the bill to the full Senate so he could work on further amendments. But the committee voted 6-1 to defer the bill to the 41st legislative day, which is a way of rejecting a bill during a 38-day lawmaking session. The one vote in favor of the bill came from the committee’s only Democrat, Liz Larson, of Sioux Falls.
Noem, who’s often mentioned as a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate, is delivering three speeches this week in Washington, D.C. A spokesman for the Governor’s Office, Ian Fury, said Noem did not take a state airplane. Fury has not responded to a follow-up message asking how Noem got to D.C. and who paid for the trip.
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