State should have paid for trips

Posted: Monday, February 21, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Anchorage Daily News:

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown and Rep. John Harris traveled to New Orleans last October for the christening of the new oil tanker Arco Endeavor.

Atlantic Richfield Co. paid for the trip.

Lt. Gov. Ulmer and Ms. Brown also made a side trip to tour Exxon's natural gas-to-liquid plant in Baton Rouge. Exxon paid for that trip.

The state should have picked up their tabs.

Let's be clear. The trip was legal. Alaska law allows executive branch officials to take such expenses-paid trips for legitimate public purposes provided it can't be inferred that expenses paid are ``intended to influence the performance of official duties, action or judgment.''

In the case of Rep. Harris state law allows legislators to accept gifts of ``travel and hospitality primarily for the purpose of obtaining information on matters of legislative concern.''

Lt. Gov. Ulmer said she felt that the state had a powerful interest in praising Arco for building the millennium-class tanker that exceeds federal safety standards, that the state's highly visible blessing sends a message to the rest of the industry that this is the tanker standard we expect.

The trip to the Exxon facility, she said, helped her learn more about the technology, one the state will consider in deciding how best to get North Slope natural gas to market.

She said both trips were worth the state's while. She pointed out that lawmakers from both parties have done the same Baton Rouge facility tour with help from Exxon. Among them are Reps. Brian Porter, Joe Green and Ethan Berkowitz and Sens. Drue Pearce, Sean Parnell and Georgianna Lincoln.

Lt. Gov. Ulmer said such trips are not only permitted, but are standard procedure.

She's right, and that's the problem.

If such trips are worthwhile, then the state should be willing to pay for them. State officials surely understand that oil, mining and other companies do not pay their way out of civic duty. They want favorable conditions for their businesses, and they want state officials to help create those conditions. That's why they're willing to cover expenses.

Neither the real dangers of a too-cozy relationship with any industry - even when influence is subtle - nor the appearance of such dangers are worth the savings to the state treasury.

Not all trips are the same. If the lieutenant governor or a lawmaker is invited to address a convention of, say, the Girl Scouts of America, few Alaskans would quibble if the Scouts paid her expenses.

But when an industry with a serious stake in Alaska buys bed, board and travel for state leaders whose public trust is to regulate that industry, citizens are right to be wary.

Lt. Gov. Ulmer said the question of state officials' expenses is one of public policy. As the law stands, it's a judgment call. She said she'd have no quarrel with tighter rules, provided those rules are clear and cover all state officials.

One of the lieutenant governor's goals has been to restore Alaskans' trust in government. Stricter laws requiring the state to pay its own way would serve that purpose. Lacking law, a policy example set by administration and legislative leaders would be a step in the right direction.

On its own nickel, the state can set its own fact-finding agendas. And in paying its own way, the state establishes by deed, not word, a healthy separation from the industries it taxes and regulates.

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