South Dakota state lawmakers spend nearly $32k on December Hawaii trip

Twelve South Dakota state lawmakers took a trip to Hawaii in December 2022. A controversy was born out of that trip because of the attendance of outgoing state lawmakers Reps. Spencer Gosch (R-Glenham) and Jamie Smith (D-Sioux Falls).
The South Dakota State Capitol at sunrise.
The South Dakota State Capitol at sunrise.(Austin Goss DNN/KOTA)
Published: Jan. 28, 2023 at 6:31 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. - Twelve South Dakota state lawmakers racked up nearly $32,000 in expenses during a December 2022 trip to the “Council of State Governments” National Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii.

That’s according to records released by Legislative Research Council (LRC) Director Reed Holwegner. Holwegner released the records, despite saying that it could be months before they were available for open record requests.

“If there is time for the LRC to provide you with the information sooner than April 24, it will,” Holwegner said in an email on December 14th. Other media outlets requesting the records received the same message.

Dakota News Now appealed the Open Records Request to the Office of Hearing Examiners, writing on December 16th that “a categorical delay of over five months is unreasonable to achieve compliance with statute.” The Office of Hearing Examiners is tasked with reviewing open records requests that requesting parties feel have been improperly denied.

Holwegner attached a copy of the travel expense records in question to his administrative appeal to the hearing examiners, making it available to Dakota News Now.

Hawaii Trip

Lawmakers who went to the conference were reimbursed for various travel expenses that took place between December 5th and December 11th, 2022.

Those on the trip included; Sen. Erin Tobin (R-Winner), Rep. Jamie Smith (D-Sioux Falls), Sen. Michael Rohl (R-Aberdeen), Sen. Tom Pischke (R-Dell Rapids), Rep. Marty Overweg (R-New Holland), Rep Oren Lesmeister (D-Parade), Rep. Chris Karr (R-Sioux Falls), Rep. Spencer Gosch (R-Glenham), Sen. Red Dawn Foster (D-Pine Ridge), Rep. Linda Duba (D-Sioux Falls), Rep. Gary Cammack (R-Union Center), and Sen. Shawn Bordeaux (D-Mission).

According to the expense records, as of January 25th neither Rep. Karr nor Sen. Foster had submitted “travel expense information” to LRC.

Lawmakers who expensed their trip through the state received roughly $3,000 in reimbursements on average. Bordeaux received only $32.53 in reimbursements.

Rep. Gary Cammack (R-Union Center), who is in his first year in the South Dakota House of Representatives after serving in the Senate, received two separate reimbursement payments of $3,354.04 for the trip to Hawaii, according to the travel expense records. Cammack also traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel and Wichita, Kansas through the Conference of State Governments in the month of July 2022. Cammack received $4,333.13 in reimbursements from LRC for those trips.

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to attend these types of conferences. Not only are they an opportunity for legislators to network they often gather new ideas, helping them craft the framework for new legislation to introduce back home.

The Hawaii trip came under scrutiny because of the attendance of now-former Representatives Jamie Smith and Spencer Gosch.

Critics argued that both lawmakers were outgoing, and thus their attendance on the trip was unnecessary. Smith unsuccessfully ran for governor last November, and Gosch was defeated in a bid to run for senate in June 2022.

Both former lawmakers argued that the trips were already booked prior to their electoral defeats. Others have suggested that the trips could prove useful for outgoing lawmakers who may one day return to the legislature.

“These meetings often have national policy implications as other elected leaders from around the country are in attendance,” Gosch told The Dakota Scout about the trips. “If we are going to continue to be part of these organizations, we need experience and leadership at these meetings to represent South Dakota on a national scale.”

Gosch’s bill for the Hawaii trip was $3,341.83. According to the same travel records, Gosch also took a trip to Naples, Florida for the “SGAC Foundation’s Leaders’ Policy Conference,” for which the state paid him $518.32 in travel expenses. Just days before his unsuccessful run for state Senate, Gosch also traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the NCSL Executive Committee & Leadership Conference. That trip cost the state $1,307.79.

Smith’s travel to Hawaii cost taxpayers $2,713.79.

But Gosch and Smith were not the only outgoing lawmakers to travel outside of South Dakota for legislative conferences. Former Sen. Mary Duvall (R-Pierre), Rep. Kent Peterson (R-Salem), and Sen. Brock Greenfield (R-Clark), all traveled to events in the continental United States after ceding office, to the tune of a few hundred dollars. Duvall was defeated in the June primary, Peterson was termed out, and Greenfield is now the Commissioner of School and Public Lands.

The controversy surrounding Gosch and Smith has prompted legislative action from both House and Senate leadership. House Speaker Hugh Bartels (R-Watertown) and Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown) have introduced legislation that would alter who approves legislative trips, making it so the legislature’s executive board would do so. Currently, the President Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House approve travel for members in their respective chambers, but Schoenbeck argues that the system is ripe for abuse.

The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle last week, with Schoenbeck carrying it through the Senate State Affairs committee.

“It grows out of an abuse of power by the former speaker of the House approving a trip to Hawaii for he and Democrat leader last December, a few weeks before they were leaving office,” Schoenbeck said.