Gov. Kristi Noem has tapped into a deep vein of historical controversy with her request for $5 million to upgrade the state's airplane fleet.
Her plan would reduce the number of planes in the executive-branch fleet from three to two, by selling two older-model planes and buying a new one (other state planes, including those owned by the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Game, Fish & Parks, would be unaffected).
Noem proposed the plan during her December budget address. She said the net cost will be $5 million.
“As planes age, they require more frequent, complex and very expensive maintenance,” she said. “The state’s top priority when considering aircraft must be safety.”
Noem’s focus on safety reflects one of the reasons the issue has a complex history. In 1993, Gov. George S. Mickelson and seven other people died when a state-owned plane crashed.
Mickelson was the son of George T. Mickelson, who was one of the first South Dakota governors to travel frequently by air. During the elder Mickelson’s term from 1947 to ’51, the state bought a single-engine, four-passenger plane for about $8,000.
In those days, newspapers often remarked on the novelty of a governor showing up for an event in an airplane. But it wasn't long before the novelty wore off and the criticism began.
The ‘flying bar’ and other controversies
George T. Mickelson had been in office less than two years when the Custer Chronicle newspaper took him to task for his use of the state airplane. The Chronicle said it wanted Mickelson to come down to earth long enough to learn the conditions of state highways.
That criticism was nothing compared to later political fights. Harry Christianson, of Rapid City, served in state government during the 1970s and ’80s before working for several decades as a lobbyist.
He said airplanes are necessary tools for South Dakota governors and other state officials. But he said airplanes are also easy to politicize, because many people see them as a luxury.
“Quite frankly, most South Dakotans have not flown in a private aircraft, particularly a corporate-size, cabin-class airplane,” Christianson said. “And so it was always a popular thing to criticize the acquisition or the use of the state plane.”
One of the more colorful controversies occurred while Democrat Dick Kneip was governor. In 1971, his administration bought a plane for about $200,000. A Republican lawmaker, Roger Haugo, claimed it was extravagant and called it a “luxurious flying bar.” The governor’s defenders argued the plane didn’t have a bar at all – they called it a “refreshment buffet.”
The plane turned out be a lemon. Gov. Kneip asked lawmakers to buy another one, and they turned him down. He ended up leasing a plane.
Republican Gov. Bill Janklow had several aircraft controversies. After he acquired a helicopter while serving as attorney general during the late 1970s, critics called it a waste of money. He responded by saying the cost of the used chopper equaled about 2 cents per South Dakotan, and he offered to refund the 2 cents to anybody who wanted it. He said about 200 people took him up on the offer.
As governor in 1983, Janklow used highway funds to buy a plane for almost $800,000 without asking the Legislature for approval. Democrats cried foul, but it was too late do anything about it.
Ten years later, it was that same plane that crashed in an Iowa field, killing Gov. George S. Mickelson and seven others.
Rounds controversy sparks ballot measure
The latest state-owned airplane controversy happened 15 years ago during the administration of Republican Gov. Mike Rounds. The state Democratic Party obtained the governor’s flight logs, and the Argus Leader newspaper analyzed them. Stu Whitney, who was a reporter at the Argus, noticed something interesting.
“I remember matching up a lot of those logs, once we got the spreadsheet together, with the Pierre high school basketball schedule,” Whitney said. “And that's when it sort of clicked for me, because a lot of these flights were linking up with Pierre road games.”
Whitney and his colleague, Terry Woster, who also worked on the reporting project, learned that Rounds was flying state planes to his son’s basketball games. Rounds – a pilot who sometimes flew the planes himself – said he was using political contributions to repay the state for his personal flights. That didn’t satisfy his critics. They proposed a measure on the 2006 ballot limiting the use of state planes to state business, and voters approved it. The language from that measure still resides in state law.
Last year, Gov. Noem came under fire for flying around the country to campaign for President Donald Trump. Her staff said she never used state planes for that travel. They said she flew commercial, or caught rides with other campaigners in their planes.
In her budget address, Noem evoked the Mickelson crash to make her case for a new plane.
“We all know that South Dakota tragically lost a governor, two state commissioners, three chief executives, and two pilots, 27 years ago,” she said. “They died in service to our great state.”
Noem said one of the planes currently in the executive branch fleet was purchased to replace the one that crashed in 1993, and the average age of the three planes in the fleet is 26 years. Her budget proposal says the oldest one is a 32-year-old King Air 200 that’s flown 2.2 million miles and will cost an estimated $1.1 million to maintain over the next five years.
This winter, the Legislature will consider Noem’s plan to sell two planes and buy another. Because the $5 million price tag attached to the proposal is the net of the purchase minus the sale proceeds, SDPB asked the Noem administration to identify the plane it plans to buy, and to disclose the price.
Spokesman Ian Fury responded with this email: “For now, I can tell you that it will likely be a used plane, but newer than the 30+ year old planes that the state currently owns.”
State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, is on the budget-writing panel known as the Appropriations Committee. He also spearhead the drive to pass the initiative in 2006 limiting the use of state planes to state business.
Nesiba said it’s too early to know if Noem’s proposal will succeed.
“I think it’s hard for me to take a position, because I don’t know how our state airplanes are being used,” Nesiba said. “I really need to understand how they’ve been used for the last couple of years, who’s using it, and how much does it cost?”
Nesiba said he plans to seek that information during the legislative session, which began earlier this month and continues until March.
– Contact reporter Seth Tupper by email.