Legislators cost state thousands in travel

Lawmakers say trips benefit state and help them serve constituents

Posted: Monday, January 04, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Alaska legislators last year cost the state thousands of dollars in travel expenses with trips to South Africa, Saudi Arabia, England, China, Germany, Korea, France and Russia.

Organizations paid for some of the trips, but the state picked up the tab for others, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Legislators say the trips benefit the state and help them to better serve constituents.

Senate Minority Leader Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, said 2009 was unusually full of overseas trips.

"Some just love to travel," he said.

But Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the amount of travel last year was not out of line.

The farthest distance traveled was to South Africa, in what Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski described as a 35-hour plane trip. He and Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire, co-chairs of the Senate Resources Committee, went to Cape Town for a course on alternative energy fuels put on by the CWC Group, which conducts industry and government training on energy issues.

Wielechowski said he'll use what he learned about gas-to-liquids to promote it in Alaska, and to perhaps bring jobs and energy to the state.

"Here's the thing: These are the courses that the oil companies go to," Wielechowski said. "I think what we've learned during (the fights over oil taxes and gas pipeline issues) is that if we don't have institutional knowledge, if we aren't up to speed on what's going on in the oil industry, we start out way behind. And when we're negotiating tax structures and major projects potentially worth billions of dollars for the state, it's worthwhile to have a base of knowledge."

The state paid $8,820 in conference fees so the two legislators could take the course, as well as plane tickets to South Africa combining about $4,500. It was a three-day course in early December, with an additional day spent visiting a gas-to-liquids plant. Neither legislator has filed lodging and meal reimbursements, but Wielechowski said he stayed in South Africa for four nights at a $120-a-night hotel, far less than the hotel where the course was held.

Wielechowski and McGuire have their own travel budget as co-chairs of the Senate Resources Committee. Many other legislators need permission from their caucus leaders before they can travel at state expense.

Wielechowski said Senate leaders suggested he attend the South Africa course after the announcement by Cook Inlet Region Inc. it was developing a massive energy project, known as "underground coal gasification," that would be the first of its kind in the United States. South Africa has commercial coal gasification, and CIRI officials had visited the country in planning their Alaska project.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson also made a long international trip in 2009. Johnson reported in a gift disclosure that the government of Saudi Arabia paid $17,974 for his expenses on what his filings described as a six-day "trade mission to Saudi Arabia with the goal of increasing relations between USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

House Speaker Chenault, who himself went to China for a conference funded by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, said the Saudi trip was organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which originally contacted Chenault about going. He told the organization that he couldn't make it because of his November China trip and suggested that the group ask the co-chairs of the House Resources Committee, including Johnson.

Other state legislators went to China in December on a state-funded trade mission. The 11-day trip included Sen. Linda Menard, Sen. Lyman Hoffman and Rep. Kurt Olson. The expenses from that trip have not been tallied.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Lindsey Holmes went to Asia in June, visiting South Korea for a "bilateral political exchange designed to foster international democracy and understanding" in a trip funded by the National Strategy Institute and the American Council of Young Political Leaders.

Sen. Bettye Davis, also an Anchorage Democrat, went to Paris in October for a women's health care conference. Davis' trip was paid for by the group Women In Government, which, like the other organizations for legislators that pay for conference travel, receives funding through donations from corporations, individuals and foundations.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, traveled to London at state cost in June for a course on oil and gas tax policy. The total state cost of the trip was $14,756. That included the $6,000 conference fee, $5,041 in hotel and food expenses.

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