PIERRE — Republican and Democratic legislative leaders differed Thursday in their opinions about what should happen to former colleagues who took a state-sponsored trip to Hawaii during the last years of their terms.
The leaders made the comments to editors and publishers during Newspaper Day at the Legislature on Jan. 26.
At issue was the attendance at a legislative conference in Hawaii last December by former Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch, a Republican from Glenham, and Jamie Smith, a former leader of Democrats in the House. Both men were in the last year of their legislative terms prior to being term limited. Smith went on to be the Democratic candidate for governor.
Asked if their participation in the trip was appropriate, Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, R-Madison, had a short answer: “No. That was inappropriate.”
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Michael Diedrich, R-Rapid City, noted that lawmakers can bring back useful ideas from conferences like the one in Hawaii, but he agreed with Crabtree that the participation by the lame duck legislators was inappropriate.
Asked if the former legislators should reimburse the state for the trip, House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, said they were following the existing rules when they applied to go on the trip.
“I’d have a hard time telling somebody they owe money for following the rules,” Mortenson said.
Crabtree didn’t directly answer the question, but did say, “I think what they did was wrong.” He noted that his efforts are put into working for the future of South Dakota. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their trip.”
Asked about the Hawaii trip, Democrats seemed to have a more forgiving nature.
“I don’t believe that lame duck legislators should be allowed to travel unless there’s a specific reason why,” said Assistant Minority Leader Erin Healy, D-Sioux Falls.
Healy took issue with up to nine lame duck legislators taking part in summer studies, noting that the issues discussed in those studies need to be brought back to the entire Legislature. “I think that is even more important to look at.”
Senate Minority Leader Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, said the issue was similar to the use of state aircraft for personal travel. He said he has been following the issue since 2005 when Gov. Mike Rounds was using state aircraft to take people to basketball games.
“I hope that Spencer Gosch and Jamie Smith, they’re still young, I hope that they do come back and serve in state government again sometime,” Nesiba said.
House Minority Leader Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, said he was on the Hawaii trip and could attest to Gosch and Smith attending all the meetings. He said there were some rumors going around about the two of them using the trip as a state-paid vacation. “That’s totally false.”
Lesmeister, who is in his final term before being term limited, said the dust-up over the trip by lame duck legislators has him concerned about his own legislative-related travel. “I’m hesitant to even look at it.”