South Dakota made national news last week, which is almost never a good thing. This time, it was all in the eye of the beholder, as President Donald Trump was the featured speaker at the return of the massive Independence Day fireworks display at Mount Rushmore on July 3.
Many issues came with this, such as whether reviving the fireworks show was a good idea — it was discontinued in 2009 because of environmental and fire concerns — and whether holding the rally was wise during the current pandemic, especially with no social distancing or face masks mandated.
But one issue deserves local attention: how the bill for the pyrotechnics show will actually be paid.
According to reports from the South Dakota Public Radio and KELO-TV, it was originally announced that the $350,000 bill for a California pyrotechnics firm to present the show would be raised from private business sponsorships. However, that didn’t pan out.
Instead, the state dipped into the South Dakota Futures Fund, which is funded by businesses in the state. The fund was created after the deep 1980s recession to support “the workforce development and technical assistance programs which help train employees, retrain employees during layoffs and support business recruitment, economic development initiatives, and research and entrepreneurial activities.”
Apparently, funding fireworks displays is also included in that mission.
Gov. Kristi Noem’s office justified tapping the fund in this instance by saying the funds were redirected for purposes of economic development, since the Mount Rushmore show helped market the state. Policy Director Maggie Seidel said the show represented $2 million worth of state investment to that end. “The hills are flooded with people,” she told KELO. “And given all that COVID has done to hurt this community, this is a huge step forward toward returning to normal.”
That’s a terribly loose and ill-advised interpretation of the spirit of the fund.
The money was basically used to cover the pyrotechnic cost (for an out-of-state company) for a political rally. And that’s what President Trump’s speech was Friday night, given his criticism of “left-wing fascism” and “liberal Democrats.” That’s not exactly nonpartisan fare that public money was supporting.
As far as returning to normal, showcasing the fact that the governor of this state decided to forego social distancing and face mask recommendations — all under the guise of “personal responsibility” — didn’t exactly send the most practical message to outside visitors and businesses. The impact of whatever message was sent by the rally remains to be seen as the incubation period for the virus unfolds.
At the very least, the Futures Fund should be fully compensated, either by the aforementioned private business donations or perhaps by the Trump campaign.
Creating some legislative oversight on the usage of such funds might not be a bad idea, either. With public funding forever at a premium, accountability is always essential and needed.