Legislators rack up million-dollar travel bill
In 2013, the state paid nearly a million dollars for lawmakers to fly across Alaska, across the country, and in some cases, around the world. Legislative travel costs went up nearly 50 percent last year.
Over the past year, Kurt Olson has traveled out of state 10 times in his capacity as a legislator. He’s gone to Boston, Denver, DC, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Nashville. He’s also had to bust out his passport twice – once for an Arctic policy meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland and once for an energy meeting in Banff, a Canadian resort town.
“At that point in time, it was the coldest place in the world. Not just North America. It was 40 or 42 below for three days,” says Olson. “So, I don’t think anyone would accuse me of having gone on a junket on that one.”
All told, the Kenai Republican racked up a $40,000 travel bill, making him the second most-traveled person in the Legislature. Usually, he’s closer to the middle of the pack.
“I was not expecting to be as high as I was, but if I couldn’t justify them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Olson laughs.
When Olson and I sit down to talk about travel, he’s got all his documentation out and annotated. Kansas City was for the annual Council on State Governments conference. Nashville was for the National Conference of Insurance Legislators, which is relevant to Olson because he chairs the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
“Two of the other meetings were generally worker’s compensation. At least two were related to Obamacare, which I am involved in. And none of the meetings were offered in Alaska,” says Olson.
Olson says he can point to four bills he’s working on that are the direct result of his travel. One has to do with opioid use by injured workers; another, their medical bills.
“I don’t really have any problem justifying the travel,” says Olson. “I mean, as long as I am using it and doing things with it that will help the State of Alaska, I certainly don’t have a problem.”
That’s the general philosophy held by those approving the travel requests.
Mike Chenault is the Speaker of the House, and any member of the majority caucus has to go through him if they want travel reimbursement. In many cases, he’s inclined to give it, especially if involves travel within Alaska or if it has a serious policy bent.
“Knowledge is never a bad thing. And if we just stayed here, we wouldn’t know what was going on elsewhere,” says Chenault.
In 2013, the House Majority Caucus spent over half a million dollars on travel. That’s up $200,000 over the year before.
Travel reimbursements can cover a broad range of activity in and out of state. There are trips for bill signing events, constituent meetings, and interim committee hearings. Rural legislators often have to expense travel within their district, because their communities can only be reached by water or air. Sometimes, lawmakers travel to different regions to get a sense of how legislation will affect districts other than their own. They can also attend funerals on state business. Last year, some lawmakers received reimbursements to attend the funeral of long-time lawmaker John Cowdery, who left the Legislature because of a corruption conviction.
Caucuses can also get reimbursed for retreats they hold in advance of session. In 2013, the House and Senate Majority such events at the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. (Members of the Senate Majority were reimbursed $85 a head for dinners at the Double Musky steakhouse during their retreat. A spokesperson for the Senate Majority says the caucus did not intend to eat there, but had to relocate to that venue after the closure of the Alyeska tram forced a cancellation of their original plans.) Chenault says these private gatherings can help a caucus determine which bills should get priority and allows them to work more efficiently once the Legislature convenes.
Out-of-state travel reimbursement request are almost exclusively related to conferences.
Chenault thinks his caucus experienced a 60 percent increase in travel reimbursements for a few reasons, like airfare going up. But probably the biggest thing is that last year wasn’t an election year. Lawmakers weren’t out trying to win votes, so they had more time to go to conferences. Because this year is a campaign year, there might not be as many travel reimbursements.
LESS MONEY, FEWER MILES?
There might also be less interest in travel for financial reasons. This year, the state is looking at a $2 billion revenue shortfall. Chenault says that will be on his mind as he makes travel decisions, but it won’t be the only factor.
“Will out-of-state travel be less this year than it was last year? I’m going to say ‘yeah,’” says Chenault. “But I don’t have a specific dollar amount that ‘that’s it, you’re not traveling anymore.’”
His counterpart in the Senate, Charlie Huggins, has similar feelings.
“It will have bearing. Yes, it’ll have bearing,” says Huggins. “But in the same token, you can’t become an isolationist.”
Huggins says if multiple people want to go on a trip, he might ask them if their attendance is absolutely necessary. Last year, 20 out of 60 lawmakers went to DC for Energy council, 17 went to Las Vegas for the Council of State Governments, and six went to Iceland for the Arctic Energy Summit, all on the state’s dime.
“You know my technique is not so much ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It’s about ‘reconsider.’ You know, think about it,” says Huggins. “And people, generally speaking, are frugal.”
A LEGISLATIVE STAYCATION
But other lawmakers in the Capitol have different definitions of frugal.
Les Gara is an Anchorage Democrat, and for the past two years, he’s been at the bottom of the travel list. He jokes it hasn’t helped his frequent flyer status.
“I’m definitely not MVP Gold,” says Gara.
Where the average lawmaker spends about $16,000 on travel, Gara’s reimbursements amounted to just $1,300. That covers his ticket to and from Juneau for the session, and another ticket for him to get to a constituent meeting in Anchorage.
“Apart from those two trips, I just haven’t seen any need to spend state money to go travel.”
As part of the small House Minority Caucus, Gara doesn’t have the same access to travel funds as his colleagues in the majority do. In each chamber, the leader of that body is given ultimate authority on the legislature’s travel budget. But to avoid getting involved in the minority’s travel decisions, the Speaker of the House just gives them a pot of money to budget as they will. Combined, the House Minority spent a little over $50,000, a tenth of what the Majority spent.
Gara says that even if he had greater access to travel funds, he doesn’t think he would use them.
“I can learn about legislation here. I know that we charge too much in terms of student loans, double what the federal rate is. I don’t have to travel to find that out. I know we’ve laid off 600 teachers over the past three years. I don’t need travel to find that out or how to reverse that trend. I can figure that out living in Alaska and staying in Alaska.”
Gara doesn’t begrudge other members their travel, though. In his career as a lawmaker, he’s taken two out-of-state trips, and he says he got a lot of information out of them. He just thinks if the state’s going to be paying for him to go somewhere, it better get a lot in return.