Outside editorial: State lawmakers should pay their way for needed travel

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2005

This editorial appeared in Wednesday's Anchorage Daily News:

It may be legal for Alaska legislators to accept valuable travel from Outside companies or even foreign governments, but it's not prudent. Alaska lawmakers have the money; if the trip is important enough to take, they should pay for it.

Required reports have emerged of legislators' trips over the past year to Taiwan, Washington, D.C., the North Slope and Colorado at the expense and behest of various Outside interests. No doubt the legislators learned a lot. No doubt it's a good idea for legislators to travel to increase their knowledge for the benefit of their constituents.

The trouble is that when the government of Taiwan or a dairy lobbying group, for example, is paying the bills, it's a little harder for a legislator to remember whom he or she really works for.

The law permits legislators to accept gifts of travel and hospitality so long as they report it. Disclosure at least opens a public window for speculation on whether the interest group who paid for the trip achieved any extra influence as a result. But that misses the point of why legislators should be taking a junket at all.

If they're not paying for a trip personally, then they should travel only when there's public business to be learned about or done. Alaska shouldn't pay for pleasure trips for elected officials, and special interests shouldn't be permitted to either.

If they're traveling to learn about or do public business - and there are plenty of legitimate examples - then the public should be paying for the benefit it receives.

And - here's the big one - the lawmaker should be prepared to demonstrate what he or she learned on behalf of Alaskans and why it was a wise expenditure of resources. When he or she gets back to the legislative chambers and committee rooms, what's the payoff in increased knowledge, perspective, expertise or talent? How does it serve the people of Alaska?

There are often very good answers to those questions. Time and attention are generally as valuable as travel costs. Legislators should be well informed of conditions affecting Alaska public policy and economic prospects, and they definitely should spend more time getting around inside Alaska to understand the needs and problems of a huge and diverse statewide community. Travel is and should be a part of that.

But they should be accountable to the right people - who are Alaska's citizens - and that means owning up to the costs directly.

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