PIERRE — The Legislature’s Executive Board fully embraced the American Legislative Exchange Council for the first time Tuesday.
The Republican-dominated board decided the state treasury should pay for the $100, two-year memberships for all 105 South Dakota lawmakers and for unlimited out-of-state trips to ALEC meetings by legislators who are members of ALEC committees.
ALEC is largely a privately funded conservative and pro-business political organization. Each of its committees is co-chaired by a business person and a legislator. ALEC committees frequently develop model legislation that is introduced by state lawmakers.
Democratic-oriented groups nationally portray ALEC as too influential on behalf of corporations.
Less than two hours after the Executive Board’s 10-4 vote Tuesday, House Democratic leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton issued a news release criticizing the decision and labeling ALEC as “extremist.”
Trips to ALEC meetings by South Dakota legislators have been paid at various times in the past decade. But the memberships weren’t paid.
Hunhoff and Senate Democratic leader Jason Frerichs of Wilmot said they don’t want ALEC dues paid for any of the 24 members of their political party in the Legislature.
Frerichs said ALEC benefits the coffers of large corporations “often at the expense of the average American taxpayer.”
The decision Tuesday puts ALEC on the same plane as the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments, which are seen as bipartisan organizations that serve lawmakers and state officials nationwide.
Rep. Kathy Tyler, D-Big Stone City, tried to argue that the ALEC trips shouldn’t be reimbursed because the Legislature doesn’t pay membership dues to ALEC.
That opening was too big for Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, to miss. Olson immediately made a motion that all legislators’ memberships in ALEC should be paid, too.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, asked what the Legislature or the state government of South Dakota will receive from ALEC.
State government won’t get anything, but individual legislators will have the opportunities to attend conferences, receive materials and get research help, replied Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford.
Peters is one of the ALEC leaders in South Dakota.
“This isn’t unheard of. The state of Iowa already does it this way,” she said about state funds paying ALEC memberships.
The new travel policy provides reimbursement for out-of-state trips to ALEC, NCSL, CSG and Midwestern Legislative Conference. To qualify, a legislator must be assigned to the one of the organization’s committees or must be a member of the organization’s governing board.
Sen. Larry Lucas, D-Mission, said the new policy doesn’t restrict the number of trips or the amount per legislator and removes an old restriction on legislators serving their final months because of term limits or a defeat in a June primary election.
Tyler, Lucas, Tieszen and Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea, voted against the broader travel policy.
Voting for it were Republican senators Deb Soholt of Sioux Falls, Corey Brown of Gettysburg, Ryan Maher of Isabel, Phyllis Heineman of Sioux Falls and Peters, as well as Republican representatives Lance Carson of Mitchell, Brian Gosch of Rapid City, Steve Westra of Sioux Falls, Charlie Hoffman of Eureka and Olson.
The broader policy comes in the wake of $500,000 added to the Legislature’s budget in the 2013 session’s final days and an earlier decision to roll extra money from the current year’s budget into next year for the Legislature.
Peters didn’t prepare an estimate of how much the new policy might cost. She said the amount depends on how many legislators go to ALEC meetings.
So far in the 2013 budget year, which began July 1, 25 trips have been taken by 23 legislators, costing a total of $31,404.
That followed a slight loosening of the policy. Because of the budget cuts throughout state government, legislative travel was nearly stopped altogether the previous two years. There were 10 trips by five legislators, costing $10,026 in 2011 and 18 trips by 18 legislators costing a total of $20,765 in 2012.
Travel was much more frequent by legislators before the budget crunch. In 2007, there were 171 trips taken by 71 lawmakers, costing a total of $203,494. In 2008, there were 198 trips by 75 legislators, costing $217,640.
Reductions began in 2009 with 97 trips by 60 legislators, costing $155,787. In 2010, there were 83 trips by 52 legislators, costing $129,191.