Gov. gone for 12 days

Europe trip puzzles lawmakers looking for Murkowski to oversee Legislative business

Posted: Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gov. Frank Murkowski is touring Europe during the next two weeks to promote Alaska seafood and meet with oil executives.

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The governor left for Amsterdam on a commercial flight from Washington, D.C., on Sunday and will also visit Germany, Poland and England before returning April 21.

Several Alaska lawmakers say the trip is ill-timed, considering the Legislature is reviewing an oil-tax bill that calls for the biggest change in decades to the system, the state's budgets and other key legislation.

"It surprised us on both sides of the aisle ... that the governor would plan to be away two to three weeks from the Capitol," said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

The governor believes it's important to promote Alaska products and work with companies who could invest in the state, said Murkowski's spokeswoman, Becky Hultberg.

In the meantime, the governor is trusting his staff to take care of business, she added.

"He has confidence in his staff and believes the Legislature is making great progress this session on a number of important issues," Hultberg said. "If he needs to return, he will."

Murkowski will check in with his staff each day through phone or e-mail, she said.

Ellis said he has the impression that the governor has strong opinions on the tax bill he proposed, and is using his chief of staff, Jim Clark, to communicate his ideas. During committee hearings on the bill, members of the Department of Revenue and Department of Administration have answered questions.

"Frank Murkowski hasn't come down to talk," said gubernatorial candidate and House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. Former Gov. Tony Knowles occasionally testified in front of committees, he added.

On Monday, House Republicans said they expect the oil-tax bill to be approved either at the end of the session or during a special session to be called immediately after the current one ends on May 9.

The administration said that during the special session the Legislature will amend the Stranded Gas Development Act to allow the oil-tax structure to be included in the contract the state is negotiating with three major oil producers - ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and BP - to build a $25 billion natural gas pipeline.

"If you asked 60 legislators in this building if they would be willing to take off two to three weeks and then come back, I think every one of the 60 legislators would say 'Hell no! Absolutely not!'" said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

The Legislature is taking a four-day break over Easter weekend. Elton said that was a decision made by the majority. If it were up to him, lawmakers would stay, he added.

Elton also questioned why Murkowski must go on the trip and not send someone else. The state would be better off sending Olympic snowboarder Rosy Fletcher, he said.

Some Republican legislators did not want to comment on the governor's trip, saying they did not know enough information about the excursion.

"I'm not going to second-guess his judgment," said Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, adding that the governor's staff is well represented in the oil tax proceedings.

Murkowski's absence also means that bills will not be signed while he is away. Some bills are heading to his desk for approval, such as Senate Bill 218, which increases penalties for sex offenders and requires those on parole to take lie-detector tests. It has an immediate effective date.

"I'm worried about unintentional consequences," said Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage. For example, rapes and molestations may continue at their current high rates until SB 218 takes effect, Guess said.

It's important for the governor to attend the meetings and events in Europe as he will be talking with the heads of several companies to secure investment, Hultberg said.

In Amsterdam, Murkowski is meeting with executives from oil giant Royal Dutch Shell to discuss possible coal gasification projects in Alaska. Next he will stop in Germany to discuss Alaska cargo operations with airline Lufthansa and will be holding a visitor industry reception and meeting, plus Murkowski will attend a press reception for seafood media and a seafood buyers' lunch.

Over the Easter weekend, Murkowski is expected to hold a lunch with seafood buyers in Poland, and in London the governor will attend a luncheon sponsored by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and meet with executives from BP and minerals company Rio Tinto.

Accompanying the governor are three staffers from his office of international trade - director Margy Johnson, Shelley James and Patricia Eckert. Two security officers are also along for the ride.

Funding for the trip comes from the governor's travel budget, Hultberg said. The governor's office will not know the total cost of the trip until Murkowski returns.

Some 21 percent of Alaska exports totaling $3.6 billion are bought by European countries, according to Mark Edwards, director of the office of economic development in the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

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