Alaska editorial: Governor's jet jaunts raise some questions

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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State Sen. Kim Elton was a staunch critic of Gov. Frank Murkowski's effort to buy a state jet. Since the state obtained the jet last year, Sen. Elton has kept a keen eye on the governor's flying habits, eager to uncover inappropriate trips.

It hasn't been hard for Sen. Elton to do so. The governor has made himself a target with some dubious use of the jet. In his most recent legislative newsletter, Sen. Elton raised questions about several trips the governor took in May.

On Friday, May 12, the governor and his wife flew to Bellingham, Wash. Two days later, on Sunday, the jet picked up the governor in Port Hardy, British Columbia, and flew him home to Juneau.

What compelling state business required the governor to fly all the way to Bellingham? Press spokesman John Manly says Gov. Murkowski toured the Alaska Marine Highway terminal and warehouse.

Uh-huh. By coincidence, the governor's 53-foot boat was in Puget Sound at the very same time. And next thing you know, the governor and his yacht are in Port Hardy, British Columbia, a weekend's sail to the north, on scenic Vancouver Island, needing a fast ride back to Juneau for the special session.

What state business did Gov. Murkowski have in Port Hardy? There wasn't any, said spokesman Manly.

So, if the governor was there on personal business, wasn't it his personal responsibility to get back to work on his own dime?

"I suppose that's a question that could be asked," said Mr. Manly.

Next case: On the day he announced he was running for re-election, Gov. Murkowski used the state jet to zip across the state, from Fairbanks to Anchorage and Kodiak.

Sen. Elton suggests Gov. Murkowski got free state rides to campaign events and should repay the full cost of the jet for the day's travel.

Not exactly. The governor was in Fairbanks the night before his re-election announcement for a public session on his proposed gas line contract. The next day, May 26, he jetted to the other two cities for bill signing and groundbreaking ceremonies that had been scheduled before he decided he would run for re-election.

The governor combined campaign and state business that day, so a pro-rata portion of the day's jet travel should come from his campaign pocket.

Next case: After Gov. Murkowski and his wife went to Billings, Mont., for an oil and gas conference May 23, the state jet ferried him and his wife to Salt Lake City. When first asked, press spokesman Manly didn't know why the governor was in Salt Lake City. The next day, he called back to say the governor was there on personal business and would be billed for the portion of the trip south of Billings.

Next case: After attending a gas line public hearing in Ketchikan on May 19, Gov. Murkowski rode the jet to Petersburg and then sailed home to Juneau on his boat. At first, spokesman Manly didn't know what state business the governor had in Petersburg. The next day, he said the governor had been invited to attend Petersburg's Little Norway festival. "It's something governors do," Mr. Manly said.

Flying Gov. Murkowski around on the state jet, whether for business or pleasure, isn't cheap. Sen. Elton reports the jet cost $1,740 per hour to operate in May. The junket to Bellingham and return via the sailing town of Port Hardy cost $8,700 and change. The governor's travels on the day of his re-election announcement cost a hair under $4,490. Flying to Billings and Salt Lake City cost $15,661.

The other major use of the state jet is to transport prisoners, especially to and from a private prison in Arizona. Prisoner transport accounted for just over half of the jet's use in May, according to Sen. Elton.

Gov. Murkowski made plenty of use of the plane, too. Not all of it was official business. And unless the governor does otherwise, it looks like the state treasury will be paying for some of his personal and campaign use.

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