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Governor Paying $350,000 Rushmore Fireworks Bill With State Economic Development Dollars

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Workers hoist fireworks to the top of Mount Rushmore.
National Park Service

The Noem administration said it would raise private money for a Mount Rushmore fireworks display attended by President Trump.

Instead, taxpayers are footing the bill. And the money’s coming from a fund for research and economic development.

Back in January, state Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen was optimistic about private funding.

“In my opinion, I think a lot of the costs can be borne by sponsorship," Hagen said at the time. "So those are areas that we’re pursuing.”

But the Governor’s Office now says the state is funding the entire $350,000 cost of Friday’s fireworks display. The state has already cut a check for half that amount to Pyro Spectaculars, of California.

The money came from the Future Fund. The late Gov. George Mickelson convinced lawmakers to create the fund in 1987, after he proposed it in his State of the State speech. He said it would be "truly an investment in South Dakota's future."

“It will be for long-term investments," Mickelson said. "It will be for building the infrastructure."

To get money for the fund, the state taxes the wages that employers pay to workers. The fund's current balance is $23 million.

The governor decides how to spend the money. But state law says the money has to be used for “purposes related to research and economic development.”

Governors have awarded hundreds of Future Fund grants over the years. Recent recipients include a parks and wildlife foundation, an authority that manages the underground science lab in Lead, and local economic development groups.

There’s debate about whether a fireworks display is an appropriate use of Future Fund dollars.

Maggie Seidel is an adviser to Gov. Kristi Noem. Seidel said the fireworks bring global media exposure to South Dakota tourism.

“When we’re talking about how awesome of an event this is," Seidel said, "I think that it’s a very good use of taxpayer money.”

Some lawmakers disagree. Reynold Nesiba is a Democratic state senator from Sioux Falls.

“That money is supposed to be used for economic development," Nesiba said, "and what we’re going to see is our economic development dollars go up in smoke, in just a few minutes.”

Taffy Howard is a Republican state representative from Rapid City. She said the money for the fireworks should come from private fundraising.

“I don’t think it’s a good use of tax dollars at all," Howard said. "I mean, I’m all for Trump visiting. I fully support that. I just don’t believe that that’s the proper use of tax dollars.”

The $350,000 is only for the fireworks display. Seidel, of the governor’s office, said the state hopes to share security and other event costs with the federal government.

The feds have already borne an estimated $30,000 in costs for a recent controlled burn at Mount Rushmore. The burn cleared out dead vegetation that would otherwise serve as fuel if the fireworks start a wildfire.

- Seth Tupper is SDPB's business and economic development reporter.