Lawmakers rack up travel costs

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2011

JUNEAU — When January arrived last year and it came time to answer the call of the Alaska Legislature, Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, and his family took a 1,028-mile journey across the state to the capitol Juneau, a trip involving three plane flights, and for the two cars he brought along, additional miles travelled via boat and ferry.

The Legislature picked up the $19,906.34 cost for Olson’s exodus and return home, a high but not unheard of amount in a state where travel — much less relocation — is often a tortuous affair.

High travel costs and reliance on airplanes are part and parcel of Alaska’s unique geography; many communities, the capital Juneau included, are accessible only by airplane or ferry. A legislative report spanning from late 2009 through 2010 shows the state government picked up a $763,411 tab for travel plus $184,437 for the relocation of the 40 representatives and 20 senators spread throughout territory one-fifth the size of the continental United States.

With a multibillion dollar surplus thanks to the state’s oil wealth, travel costs are not seen as a boondoggle but instead the unavoidable cost of representing the people of Alaska.

“When you live in far flung-parts of the state, the cost of travel is high,” said Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue.

He racked up $31,779.75 in travel expenses last year, much of it travel to meetings throughout the state as part of his position on the House Finance Committee. Joule also said because he represents a rural district, his perspective on issues is in demand by a variety of Alaska civic organizations, adding to his tab.

Lawmakers also incur high costs to move to the capital in southeast Alaska for the 90-day legislative session, costs repaid by the state. Joule incurred $5,128 in relocation expenses last year going between Juneau and his home in Kotzebue, a town of about 3,200 people in northwest Alaska and about 1,050 miles from the capital.

“Going from Kotzebue to Anchorage alone is about $600,” Joule said.

And getting to and from a temporary home in Juneau is not as simple or cheap as it would seem because the capital is not connected to the road system that criss-crosses the south-central portion of the state.

Golovin, the town of about 140 where Olson lives and works as a doctor and reindeer herder, is similarly disconnected, meaning Olson had little choice but to relocate via plane.

“When I come down, I come down lock, stock and barrel,” Olson said, adding that he required the two cars so he and his wife could care for their children and get to work in Juneau.

Olson’s cars were flown from his home to Anchorage via Nome (about 630 miles), and then sent on a ferry from Whittier to Juneau (about another 525 miles). The cost for moving the cars round trip was $4,192 alone, according to Loren Peterson, a staffer in Olson’s office.

Olson also had another $30,738.59 in travel costs.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, responsible for approving state travel for some representatives, said he considers travel a good way to broaden the perspectives of many legislators, particularly those concentrated in the state’s cities.

“Any time an urban legislator can travel to a rural area for any subject, it’s good for the communities,” Chenault said.

As a Juneau lawmaker, Republican Rep. Cathy Mużoz drives to see her constituents, and is not reimbursed for relocating during the session. Still, Mużoz spent $4,810.79 travelling for business related to her memberships last session in the transportation and education committees, some of which were geared toward evaluating the needs of rural communities.

“It’s tremendous being able to see first-hand the benefits of airports in remote location,” Mużoz said of her tour last session of small airports that connect rural Alaska towns to the outside world.

Legislators based in Anchorage or Fairbanks — the state’s two largest cities, connected by road and rail — can be thriftier than others with their travel. Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, spent $372 on travel last year, the least of any legislator and about the cost of one round-trip ticket from Anchorage to Juneau.

“People didn’t vote for me so I could get on a plane,” Doogan said.

However, Chenault said he is skeptical of some travel requests, such as those for international travel or travel to vacation destinations. In those cases, Chenault said he encourages legislators to find alternatives within Alaska’s borders or nearby.

Globetrotting is acceptable for some issues. Alaska’s reliance on revenue from oil production, which currently makes up 90 percent of the state’s unrestricted revenue, led Sen. Bert Stedman, Republican co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, to spend $42,595 in travelling to petroleum-related events.

These events included meetings of the Energy Council, a group made up of energy-producing states and Canadian provinces whose executive committee Stedman sits on, as well as a week-long class in London on the fiscal analysis of oil basins.

Stedman said these types of workshops offered an opportunity to better his knowledge of the issues affecting Alaska’s treasury.

But while expensive travel in the state has yet to cause alarm, the yearly exodus of a majority of Alaska lawmakers for a week-long energy conference in the nation’s capital has raised some hackles.

Nearly half the Legislature will head to Washington, D.C., this week for the Energy Council’s annual meeting, which last year cost $48,390 for legislators to attend, according to Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency.

Alaska lawmakers routinely defend the trip, saying it’s necessary for them to understand energy issues so vital to the state and its treasury.

But David Shurtleff, a political strategist with Strategies 360 in Anchorage, said he wonders why efforts haven’t been made to move the Energy Council meetings to Alaska, given the importance of the industry to the state.

“With 28 or 29 folks going, if we have so much pull, (so many) attendees, why not bring the conference to Alaska?” Shurtleff said. “If it was brought to Juneau, it would pay for itself.”

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