PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers have increased their out-of-state travel since 2011 budget cuts, and a meeting viewed by some people as too conservative has been the top destination, according to records from the state.
Between July and early May, the state spent about $89,000 in taxpayer money for legislative travel, 48 percent of which covered trips to the American Legislative Exchange Council's 2013 Annual Meeting and States and Nation Policy Summit.
Every year the Executive Board of the Legislature, a bipartisan panel comprised of representatives and senators, adopts a policy on out-of-state travel reimbursement, and lawmakers recently renewed the policy to allow ALEC events.
Editorial pages, state Democrats and even some Republicans have protested the use of state funds for ALEC, which they don't consider in the same, nonpartisan league as the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and its affiliate, the Midwestern Legislative Conference.
At the heart of the issue is a disagreement on whether ALEC is a partisan group.
ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling said it's not.
"Whereas (the National Conference of State Legislatures) gathers to assert the voice of the states to the federal government, ALEC members come together to discuss solutions for state policy absent federal government involvement," he said in an email.
The group, which was founded for conservative lawmakers, is known for bringing business interests to the table while drafting legislation focused on limited government and free markets.
Republican Sen. Craig Tieszen, of Rapid City, said that while he might agree with ALEC politically, he doesn't think legislators should get reimbursed for trips because it's not in the same league as the National Council of State Legislatures. It's more politically charged, like the more liberal American Civil Liberties Union and the pro-abortion rights group National Abortion Rights Action League, he said.
Tieszen is among the top spending legislative travelers, along with Democratic Rep. Mark Feinstein, of Sioux Falls, both of whom traveled to three non-ALEC events and were reimbursed more than $4,000 for them since July.
"I think it makes me a better legislator," Tieszen said, adding that he tries to travel inexpensively.
Many lawmakers agree that the travel reimbursements are necessary to discuss ideas across state lines.
Sen. Ryan Maher, chairman of the Executive Board, said a 40-day legislative session is not long enough for legislators to fully research policy in South Dakota and other states.
The Isabel Republican voted with the majority to fund ALEC travel. He has travelled to conferences with the organization since he was a freshman eight years ago.
Maher said the group is indeed non-partisan. Some Democrats have travelled to ALEC events and the group is more centrist than it's given credit for, he said.
At least four legislators attended both ALEC events held this fiscal year, including Rep. Jenna Haggar, Rep. Manny Steele, Sen. Daniel Lederman and Rep. Isaac Latterell, all Republicans. In 2011 and 2012, no legislators traveled to ALEC events, and few travelled to any conferences those years due to budget cuts.
Last year, of the roughly $28,000 spent on out-of-state meetings, 61 percent went to the National Conference of State Legislatures. NCSL also drew the most in 2010, 43 percent of about $110,000 in travel, while ALEC expenses accounted for 25 percent that year, according to state records.
The National Conference of State Legislatures lobbies for its members before Congress and provides them information. Its main leadership position alternates each year between a Democrat and a Republican and the executive committee includes 21 legislative Democrats, 21 Republicans and 20 staffers.
"Our research, publications and programs are objective and unbiased," said spokesman Mick Bullock by email.