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Now it’s the Legislature’s turn to try to scale the Noem wall of silence

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Now it’s the Legislature’s turn to try to scale the Noem wall of silence

Dec 02, 2023 | 2:00 pm ET
By Dana Hess
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Now it’s the Legislature’s turn to try to scale the Noem wall of silence
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Gov. Kristi Noem recruits welders to move to South Dakota in one of her office's Freedom Works Here campaign ads. (Courtesy of Governor's Office)

It’s likely that journalists in South Dakota allowed themselves a few self-satisfied chuckles last month. This mirth was inspired by watching the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee fail to get the information it was seeking about the Freedom Works Here campaign from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

The Freedom Works Here campaign advertisements, which have run nationally, feature Gov. Kristi Noem in the role of workers in high-demand jobs, asking those workers to apply in South Dakota. Lawmakers were particularly concerned that GOED officials and state Secretary of Labor Marcia Hultman didn’t have an answer when asked how they would measure the success of the $5 million campaign.

One of the slides in the GOED presentation said 1,900 people “are in the final stages of finding their career here.” Quizzed about what that meant, GOED officials said that those people had requested state-sponsored job advisers. Anyone who has ever sold a house or packed a moving van knows that requesting a job adviser is a long way from the “final stages” of making a move.

Some lawmakers frustrated by lack of specific data from governor’s workforce campaign

This space has been used often and at some length to detail the opaque nature of the Noem administration:

  • During the last legislative session, Noem ditched the traditional governor’s news conference, probably because she didn’t want to answer any more questions about her national political ambitions.
  • Her administration has quashed the ability of reporters to talk to state sources, insisting that all questions go through public information officers who often reply in an untimely fashion with answers to questions that were never asked.
  • Noem flatly refused media requests for information about the calls to a hotline she set up to elicit complaints about the state’s universities.
  • During the 2021 legislative session, Republican lawmakers defeated a bill that would have enlightened the public about the use of state airplanes by the much-traveled Noem.
  • During the same session, attempts to get something, anything, in the way of information about the cost of Noem’s state security detail was defeated in the name of protecting the governor’s safety.
  • Security was invoked again when the governor refused to provide a public calendar of her travels and meetings at the Capitol. (That’s why it was a surprise to learn about Noem’s recent trip to Paris, France, where she headlined a conservative conference. Good luck figuring out what it cost to send her security detail overseas.)

For years, journalists have been having trouble getting information out of Noem and her administration. Now, it seems, it’s the Legislature’s turn to feel that frustration.

Aside from wanting to gauge the success of the Freedom Works Here campaign, lawmakers questioned why businesses and local economic development offices are being asked to contribute to the campaign to keep it running. Those that make donations will get access to the leads for workers. It seems that the data should be readily available to all businesses since their tax dollars paid for the initial campaign.

The Appropriations Committee took testimony from the GOED recently on a Monday. In a move that reeked of unprofessionalism, on the Wednesday of that week Noem announced the $1.5 million phase two of the Freedom Works Here campaign. One lawmaker on the committee said the first he heard about phase two was from the governor’s press release.

In addition to questions from the Appropriations Committee, the Legislature’s Executive Board wants to know all about the process that was used to select Go West Media of Ohio to handle millions of dollars worth of advertising. The GOED has agreed to make a presentation about the bidding process to the Executive Board. However, it will provide that information in a closed session, away from the public and the media, citing state law. It seems that losing bidders are afforded a certain level of confidentiality.

That presentation should be interesting, given Sioux Falls Live’s revelation that Lawrence and Schiller’s bid to work on the advertising program looks eerily similar to the Freedom Works Here commercials produced by Go West Media.

No one in the Legislature has yet been cynical enough or brave enough to wonder out loud if Noem is using the campaign to keep her profile high during the run-up to the presidential elections so she can ensure her place on the short list of candidates to serve as Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee.

Here’s hoping that the Legislature gets the answers it wants. There should always be a proper accounting of how taxpayer dollars are being spent. If journalists can’t get those answers, maybe lawmakers can.