Legislative Democrats are demanding an apology from Gov. Frank Murkowski's office for a letter that appeared in Sunday's Anchorage Daily News criticizing state Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.
"Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau is the Maytag repairman of the Senate - he isn't needed for very much and not much is expected," Murkowski Chief of Staff Jim Clark wrote in his letter to the editor.
That led Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis of Anchorage to demand an apology.
Clark's letter was in response to Elton's recent constituent newsletter, which reported that a November flight of the governor's new jet carried a state employee from Las Vegas to Dallas at a cost of $7,338. Elton criticized the trip as wasteful spending.
"I was surprised and disappointed," Elton said of the retaliatory letter. "I've always been friends with Jim Clark."
After Elton's newsletter, Republican Murkowski acknowledged he was the state employee who took the flight. Clark's letter explains that the governor was returning from a Thanksgiving break in Hawaii and needed to attend gas pipeline negotiations in Dallas.
A direct flight was not available, so Murkowski took a commercial flight to Las Vegas, where he connected with the state jet at 6 a.m. to meet with oil executives in Dallas.
According to Elton, the governor could have waited for one of 97 daily flights from Las Vegas to Dallas at a fraction of the cost.
"It beats counting sheep, and it's a day job," Clark wrote of Elton's effort to chronicle the jet journeys.
Asked whether the governor backs Clark's opinion, Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said that he has been mum on the matter. But Murkowski himself during a Jan. 11 news conference vented to reporters about Elton's investigating and publishing the information.
Senate Minority Leader Ellis said during a news conference Tuesday that Clark's letter was a "vicious" and "juvenile" attack on Elton.
Tuesday afternoon, Clark released a written statement saying Elton has offended the administration.
"Sen. Elton has consistently and gratuitously criticized and maligned the governor's staff and commissioners in his newsletter. A recent edition implied that the governor might run for re-election because his chief of staff and top aides need the jobs," Clark said.
"Such rudeness toward the hardworking third-floor staff and cabinet members of this administration will not be tolerated," he added.
Ellis said Clark's letter to the editor sets a poor tone for the session and interferes with cooperation. This session stands to be historic, considering decisions pending on a budget surplus, oil tax reform and a possible gas pipeline contract.
"To begin this session with this kind of personal attack is unacceptable," Ellis said.
Clark said he spoke with Ellis on Tuesday and they agreed to discuss these types of issues in the future.
"He now has a better understanding of the frustration that culminated in my response. None of this is useful to the people of the state," Clark said.
Ellis said his understanding of that meeting was that Clark expressed frustration over Elton's newsletter. He said he was told Clark is writing a letter to Elton.
"I got a strong impression that it would not be an apology," Ellis said. He said he still wants Clark to apologize.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety purchased a 21-year-old Westwind II aircraft in November for $2.6 million for the governor's use and to transport prisoners to Arizona, where the state leases prison space.
Republicans and Democrats opposed the purchase. Last session, a House of Representatives committee removed from the budget the governor's request to spend $1.4 million to lease a plane.
The administration later bought the plane with a line of credit the state has with Key Bank, which does not require legislative approval.