Alaska ethics panel OKs campaigning on state trips

Posted: Monday, May 31, 2010

ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Legislature’s special ethics committee says it’s OK for lawmakers to campaign on state-paid trips.

The decision Thursday reversed previous policy against combining state travel with politics. Lawmakers thought the old policy was particularly unfair to rural lawmakers, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The ethics committee adopted the previous policy in 2008 during a backlash over Gov. Frank Murkowski’s use of a state jet for campaigning.

State Rep. Jay Ramras of Fairbanks asked for a second opinion, which was drafted by the committee’s legal counsel, Brent Cole. It says the state shouldn’t pay for partisan political activity.

“On the other hand, if the legislator gives as his or her primary purpose traveling to and from the legislative session, visiting constituents, or engaging in other legislative business, they should not be barred from engaging in other incidental activities like political campaigning or partisan political activity during the trip,” Cole wrote.

The ethics committee is a mix of public members and legislators. Three of the four public members voted against the new policy. All four legislators voted in favor.

Gary Turner, one of the public members who voted against the new policy, said it would be unfair to challengers trying to unseat incumbents.

“This gives such an advantage to the incumbent when it is an election season, when you can go ahead and fly for a legislative purpose and combine that with fundraising or with campaigning. The (challenger) would have to pay for such a trip out of his or her pocket,” Turner said.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, responded there are times when incumbents are stuck in special session while their challengers can campaign.

The travel policy applies to legislators running for re-election, as well as those running for higher office. Ramras, a Republican, is running for lieutenant governor. Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, is running for governor, and Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, is running for Congress.

Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said he traveled to constituents in Homer recently to explain what happened in the legislative session.

“And of course everyone knows I’m running for office in Homer. It wasn’t a campaign trip, I wasn’t campaigning. But frankly, the difference between campaigning and just explaining what the Legislature did is pretty tough. I mean, how do you draw that line?”

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