Noem plans to use emergency and disaster money to pay for border troop deployment

Legislator criticizes move and questions legality
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem visits the troops during the 2019 Golden Coyote Exercise at...
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem visits the troops during the 2019 Golden Coyote Exercise at Rapid City, S.D., June 14, 2019. The Golden Coyote Training Exercise is a three-phase, scenario-driven exercise conducted in South Dakota and Wyoming, which enables commanders to focus on mission essential task requirements, warrior tasks and battle drills. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Spc. Jamaal Turner)(Spc. Jamaal Turner | 982nd Combat Camera Company Airb)
Updated: Jun. 4, 2023 at 12:00 PM MDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (SDS) - Gov. Kristi Noem’s funding source for a troop deployment to the U.S.-Mexico border is the state’s Emergency and Disaster Fund, a revelation that caused a top-ranking legislator to criticize the plan and question its legality.

Noem announced the impending troop deployment Thursday in a news release, saying she plans to send at least 50 National Guard soldiers to help secure the nation’s southern border this summer. She and 12 fellow Republican governors are responding to a request for assistance from the governor of Texas, the news release said.

Noem’s spokesman, Ian Fury, did not provide a cost estimate for the deployment, but told South Dakota Searchlight via text message Thursday evening, “All costs will be paid out of the Emergency & Disaster Fund.”

Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican and president pro tempore of the state Senate, said securing the border is a federal responsibility. He said Noem is acting on a “political agenda unrelated to South Dakota issues” and violating the trust placed in the executive branch to spend the state’s money as intended.

“She cannot use those funds for that,” Schoenbeck said Thursday night. “She needs to follow the law.”

A fund for in-state expenses

A Searchlight review of budget documents, public testimony, legislation, and state laws pertaining to the fund revealed a common thread: references to the fund being intended for expenses within the state’s borders.

According to the recommended budget Noem sent to legislators in December, the fund is for emergencies and disasters “in South Dakota.” Noem asked legislators to put $2,524,560 into the fund.

The House Committee on Appropriations filed a bill to appropriate precisely that amount in January. Angela Lemieux, of the Department of Public Safety, testified during the bill’s first public hearing later that month.

“The fund covers costs for emergencies and disasters that occur in the state,” Lemieux told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations.

She said the money is used to help communities recover from natural disasters, and for grants that help communities prepare for future disasters.

After the Joint Appropriations Committee, the bill’s next stop was the House of Representatives, where Republican Lance Koth of Mitchell delivered the only comments.

“It’s a special appropriation for the Emergency and Disaster Fund to cover costs of emergencies and disasters that have already occurred in our state,” Koth said.

In the Senate, the only remarks came from Dean Wink, R-Howes, who offered a detailed example to illustrate the fund’s purpose.

“We’ve had a very dry two years out in the Black Hills, and so we’ve had some wildfires that the locals, it got too big for them,” Wink said. “We have a reciprocal agreement with neighboring states that if we need help, they send their crews and their equipment, and vice versa. And next year, they may need our help. So they send us a bill after going back home, the Department of Public Safety pays it, and now they request us to refill their fund to bring it back up to zero.”

The bill received unanimous support at each level of the Legislature, and Noem signed it into law on Feb. 9.

None of the testimony, nor any of the language in the bill, mentioned out-of-state National Guard deployments.

The bill’s text said the money is for costs related to an “emergency or disaster” and pointed to a pre-existing state law that defines those terms. That law says emergencies and disasters include any natural, nuclear, man-made, war-related, or other catastrophe “in any part of the state.”

Legislators react

Thursday night, Schoenbeck declined to say what, if anything, the Legislature could do to stop Noem from spending the money as she plans. But he said budget requests from Noem and her staff could face opposition during the next legislative session.

“The appropriations process involves a lot of trust,” Schoenbeck said. “If they come back with less trust, that translates into what’s appropriated the next year.”

Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, the chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee, said Noem’s plan to use the Emergency and Disaster Fund for a troop deployment “looks like a new use of those dollars.”

Hunhoff wasn’t prepared to offer further comments, she said, because she hadn’t received any communication about the matter from the Governor’s Office.

“I wish we would’ve had notice or information, but apparently we all got the information the same time the news release went out,” Hunhoff said.

Noem has sent National Guard troops to the nation’s southern border before. In 2021, she ignited controversy with her acceptance of a $1 million donation from Tennessee billionaire Willis Johnson to pay most of the cost for deploying 48 troops. The deployment cost a total of $1.45 million, according to records obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Friday, Fury seemed to disregard the $1 million donation while tweeting that the state’s Emergency and Disaster Fund “is how these type of activations are ALWAYS paid for. In fact, it’s precisely how the deployment to the border 2 years ago was paid for.” South Dakota Searchlight sent Fury a message asking for clarification on whether the fund covered the portion of the deployment not covered by the donation, or whether the donation was never paid. Fury has not yet responded.

Also in 2021, Noem approved the sending of additional National Guard soldiers to the border at the request of the federal government. She said those additional troops were on “federal pay status.”

The new deployments announced by Noem and other Republican governors come during a period of heightened political rhetoric about the border, in connection with the end of a pandemic policy that temporarily turned away asylum seekers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The number of migrants crossing the border — predicted by some to surge after the policy ended — has plummeted recently.

Fury’s Friday tweet said, “The border is an EMERGENCY. It’s a warzone.”

— South Dakota Searchlight’s Joshua Haiar and Seth Tupper contributed to this report.