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ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Public Offices Commission has taken its first steps to decide whether the campaign of Gov. Frank Murkowski must reimburse the state for trips he took on the state-owned jet during the campaign before the August primary.
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An answer may take until November.
Linda Perez, administrative director of the governor's office, asked the APOC on Aug. 7 for an interpretation on how to handle trips where he performed official business and campaigned. Murkowski's campaign reserved $5,000 to cover possible jet costs.
Murkowski finished third in the primary Aug. 22.
Brooke Miles, APOC executive director, said election laws include a complete ban on the use of state resources to help a candidate get elected. State attorneys, however, have said the prohibition becomes blurred when the main purpose of a trip is state business and the political part is an add-on.
Perez on Wednesday told the commission that governors and lieutenant governors have combined official business and political business on state-financed travel for years. Perez, who joined the governor's office during the 1980s administration of Democrat Gov. Bill Sheffield, said re-election campaigns typically would pay part of the cost of a commercial airplane ticket for mixed-purpose trips during election season.
APOC commissioner Elizabeth Hickerson, however, said it's a different story when the state owns the aircraft and pays for fuel, pilots, mechanics and maintenance to operate it - "an outrageous amount of money compared to a commercial ticket," she said.
Perez and assistant attorneys general David Jones and Jan DeYoung said the alternative to allowing mixed-purpose trips could be to require duplicate trips on the same day - an official flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks for official business followed by a political trip to Fairbanks for campaign business. That would be unreasonable, they said.
However, Jones said Wednesday and in an analysis sent to the governor's office in June that it's important to use good judgment in deciding when to blend state and political business on one trip.
"Indiscriminate use of state aircraft for trips combining official duties and partisan political activities will risk both violating the ethics act and inviting public criticism," Jones wrote in June.
Commission chairman Larry Wood, said that he was sympathetic to finding the sort of balance Perez, DeYoung and Jones described but that he wants to be assured it meets the letter of both election and ethics laws.
The commission voted unanimously to send the questions back to its staff and attorneys for more review at its next meeting in December.
Election laws require Murkowski to close out the campaign account on his unsuccessful re-election bid by Nov. 20, or 90 days after the primary.
To beat that deadline, commissioners decided to have a teleconference, probably earlier in November, to give the governor an answer.
A longer range look at how to deal with future governors' use of the jet will come later. It may include new regulations, which would give the public a chance to comment on the practice.