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Governor travel shot up with Murkowski's jet, plummets with Palin

Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Travel costs for Alaska's governor plunged under new Gov. Sarah Palin, but not just because she flies on Alaska Airlines instead of former Gov. Frank Murkowski's spendy executive jet.

Mark Thiessen / The Associated Press
Mark Thiessen / The Associated Press

Palin has been more likely to travel to Naknek for a community potluck, while Murkowski toured east Asian capitals at the tail end of his single term as a governor.

"I guess I'd have to say that I'm not surprised," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, and a vocal critic in years past of Murkowski's decision to buy a Westwind II jet over the objections of many legislators.

Other repercussions continue as angry legislators try to rein in the executive branch's use of lease-to-purchase financing, such as Murkowski used to buy the jet without legislative approval.

That decision was one of several that contributed to Murkowski's placing third in the 2006 Republican primary, and losing his job to jet-critic Palin, who sold the jet once in office.

New numbers released this year show Murkowski spent more than half a million dollars on travel in his last year in office, revised upward from earlier estimates.

The state Department of Administration figures show that in Palin's first year in office she spent less than $115,000 on travel, less than any governor in recent years.

The biggest factor in the decline was the sale of the jet, which cost $1,689 an hour to fly.

Palin traveled frequently, sometimes commercial and sometimes by a King Air turboprop owned by the Department of Public Safety.

Even comparable trips by the two governors had different costs. Both Palin and Murkowski attended the National Governors Association meeting in Washington. D.C. While Palin spent $1,885 on lodging, Murkowski spent $6,599, staying in an "executive" suite JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue for a week at a cost of $937 per day, including tax.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she didn't object to spending money on whatever travel a governor needs to do his or her job. In fact, Kerttula said, she'd even be willing to consider buying a jet for a governor, if the governor thought it was necessary and could justify it.

How about Murkowski's $13,000 trip to Taiwan, Japan and Korea months after he lost his re-election bid and less than a month before leaving office?

"OK, that may not have been a good use of state dollars," Kerttula said.

Murkowski was unavailable for comment.

The jet issue still rankles some legislators. Murkowski bought it without explicit legislative approval, financing it by selling a state police King Air and entering into a lease-purchase agreement for the remaining cost.

Now, some in the Legislature want to ban the use of lease-purchase agreements, which some think enable the executive branch to spend money without legislative approval by structuring it as a "lease to purchase."

The House of Representatives has unanimously approved the measure; it is now under consideration in the Senate Finance Committee.

"At first glance, this looks pretty draconian," said Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River.

The bill would prevent the executive branch from using the "subterfuge" of a lease-purchase to get around going through the Legislature's capital budget process, said Tom Wright, a staffer for Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, the co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.

"One of the items that was used for lease-purchase was, of course, the jet, by Gov. Murkowski," Wright said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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