South Dakota taxpayer dollars spent to make governor look good

October 22, 2023 1:00 pm
Gov. Kristi Noem speaks Sept. 8, 2023, during a rally at The Monument in Rapid City featuring former President Donald Trump. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

Gov. Kristi Noem speaks Sept. 8, 2023, during a rally at The Monument in Rapid City featuring former President Donald Trump. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

Gov. Kristi Noem is a little young to be suffering from long-term memory loss, but she seems to be forgetting this statement she made to the Legislature during her 2022 budget address:

“I recognize that taxpayer dollars are not our own – they belong to the people of South Dakota. We all must remember throughout our budget discussions, that this money belongs to the hard-working people of South Dakota.”

That money may belong to us, but Noem gets to use it as she sees fit. And often she puts it to a use designed to make her look good among her conservative colleagues. 

A recent example is the $850,000 price tag on the month-long deployment to the Texas-Mexico border of 50 South Dakota National Guard troops. The deployment was paid for through funding from the state’s emergency and disaster fund

This isn’t the first time South Dakota Guard soldiers have been to the border to help with security. One deployment was at the request of the federal government and paid for by the feds. Noem raised eyebrows with the other deployment, relying on a $1 million donation from Tennessee billionaire Willis Johnson to pay for the excursion. The total cost of that deployment, according to records obtained by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, came in at $1.45 million. 

In other words, that’s $1.3 million Noem has spent on border security that has nothing to do with the South Dakota border. Noem was polishing her credentials as a conservative by sending South Dakota Guard soldiers to the border, and she funded it with taxpayer dollars. 

In a state where $1 million still goes a long way, South Dakotans have to hope that the state’s emergency and disaster fund doesn’t come up short in the event of a real emergency like a tornado or a flood or a wildfire.

If Noem wants to declare an emergency, she’d be better off sticking closer to home and investing the state’s money by declaring an emergency to find a solution to the child care crisis or the shortage of affordable housing.

Noem is also getting plenty of mileage out of the Freedom Works Here marketing effort designed to attract more workers to South Dakota. While the marketing program has a $6.5 million price tag, according to a recent South Dakota News Watch story, Noem is asking businesses and communities to throw in $10,000 to continue to help fund the program. Some have contributed, though at the time of the story they had yet to see any of the many contacts Noem touts when talking about the program’s success. 

Noem figures prominently in the commercials released for Freedom Works Here. At least one political pundit noted that the Freedom Works Here program came along at an especially propitious time for the governor, keeping her profile high during the runup to the 2024 elections. 

Most recently, Noem wasn’t spending taxpayer dollars but rather shunning them. According to a story in The Dakota Scout, South Dakota was the only state in the nation to bypass its share of the federal Local Cybersecurity Grant program. Citing too much red tape and excessive federal spending, the Noem administration decided to pass on collecting $7 million over two years. The governor doesn’t seem to catch on to the fact that she’s turning down funding powered by the taxes that South Dakotans pay into their federal government. A move like that isn’t so much about red tape or the federal government spending too much as it’s about making Noem look conservative. 

It’s easy to understand why Noem wants to look good to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. She’s likely on former President Donald Trump’s short list of vice presidential candidates. To stay there, she has to burnish her conservative credentials every chance she gets. It would just be nice if she could find a way to remind the world that she’s a conservative without relying on taxpayer funding. 



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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.