Gov. Sarah Palin is campaigning as a budget watchdog eager to shave frivolous government spending. That image took a hit Tuesday when The Washington Post reported the governor charges the state for travel expenses while living at her Wasilla home, and the Palin camp defended her conservative credentials.
"All of her travel-related activities have been appropriately documented, are completely transparent and entirely legal," said Ben Porritt, spokesman for Palin's vice presidential campaign.
The newspaper reported that Palin billed the state for meal money while spending more than 300 nights at her Valley home during her first 19 months in office and regularly takes family members on state-paid trips. In response, Palin's state spokeswoman said the governor has saved Alaska money by flying coach, selling the infamous state jet and cutting the chef at the governor's mansion in Juneau.
As with previous governors, the state pays for the first family's meals when the Palins are in Juneau.
In Palin's case, the state is also paying for at least some meals when she's staying in Wasilla. Like other state officials, she's entitled to $60 a day "per diem" for food and incidentals, such as tips, while traveling on state business. State rules say that if your job stations you in Juneau or Anchorage, but you live in another part of the state, you can still get the meal money when visiting your hometown, said Linda Perez, director of administrative services for the governor.
At least one member of Palin's cabinet also ate on the state's dime while staying in his hometown on multi-day trips, according to Division of Finance records.
The last governor from Southcentral Alaska was Tony Knowles, who said he leased out his Anchorage home while in office.
"When you're living at home, you don't pay yourself for living at home," Knowles, a Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday. "And if you use a technicality to get around that rule so you can get paid for it, it's not right."
Knowles moved his family to Juneau. The Palins split time between Juneau and the Valley, with the governor often working in Juneau during the legislative session and in Anchorage for much of the rest of the year.
The state considers Juneau to be the governor's home base. That creates a scenario where Palin is considered to be "traveling" while living in her own house.
Why does she accept the meal per diem while at home?
"She's entitled to it," said Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.
MURKOWSKIS SPENT MORE
In mid-June of 2007, according to records, Palin arrived in Anchorage on the state's King Air propeller plane for the beginning of a long stay away from the capital. On her agenda: The special legislative session on senior aid, signing the state budget and a baseball game between the Mat-Su Miners and Alaska Goldpanners.
During the same trip, Palin performed the coin toss at an Alaska Wild football game one day, and vetoed $231 million for projects in the state construction budget the next. For two weeks, she worked in Anchorage while living at home, charging the state a total of about $800 in meal money, according to the travel records.
All told, Palin has collected thousands of dollars in per diems while staying in the Valley.
The per diem payments are listed on travel reports that the governor and other state employees submit to get reimbursed for meals and lodging while on the road. The Daily News requested the records after questions arose about the state paying for Palin's daughter to fly to Barrow this summer.
Leighow said the governor saves money when she's at home -- it's less expensive than staffing and stocking the governor's mansion in Juneau -- and spends far less on travel than her predecessor, Gov. Frank Murkowski.
Palin spent about $114,900 traveling in 2007, versus the $516,600 Murkowski spent the year before, according to state records. Palin's husband, Todd, also travels less than recent first spouses. Knowles' wife, Susan, often flew out of state for meetings and giving speeches as the first lady.
Murkowski generally refused to fly without his wife, Nancy, who spent $124,000 on airline tickets, meals and lodging bills over four years, according to the governor's office.
As of August, Todd Palin had cost the state about $14,000 in travel.
With his home leased out, Knowles said he stayed at the Hilton hotel when he needed to go to Anchorage as governor. He collected a meal per diem unless he was attending events at which meals were provided, he said.
Murkowski followed, serving from 2002 to 2006. The state rented an Anchorage apartment for him for business in the city, and he collected per diem while staying there, Perez said.
CABINET MEMBER DID LIKEWISE
Palin doesn't require her cabinet members to live in Juneau, and most don't. A check of records on Tuesday found at least one has charged the state for per diem while staying in his hometown.
In early 2007, Labor Commissioner Click Bishop -- who lives in Fairbanks but was based in Anchorage at the time -- collected more than $900 to pay for meals during six trips to his hometown, including multi-day stays to attend meetings.
Bishop couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.
Palin is expected back in Alaska today, but has been out of state and on the campaign trail since late August, when Sen. John McCain announced her as his surprise running mate. The trip isn't considered state business, and Palin won't be able to collect a per diem or reimburse lodging costs since she's been gone, Perez said.
Palin chief of staff Mike Nizich, Anchorage office director Kris Perry, communications director Bill McAllister, and Bob Cockrell, one of Palin's security special agents, all joined the governor at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
The state only plans to pay travel expenses for McAllister and Cockrell, according to the governor's office.
KIDS TRAVEL ON STATE DIME
Before facing questions about per diems, the governor's travel bills caught the attention of her critics when her daughter Piper joined Palin on a well-publicized trip to Barrow.
Palin watchers asked: Who paid for that?
The governor's travel records since inauguration show the state routinely buys commercial airline tickets for the Palin daughters.
Since Palin took office nearly two years ago, the state has spent at least $31,800 on dozens of airline tickets for the family, and more for meals and hotels.
A few examples:
July 7-15, 2008: Palin daughters Piper and Bristol flew to Philadelphia with the governor for a National Governors Association meeting. The state lists the purpose of the girls' trip as participating in "governor's youth programs and family activities." The airfare and lodging cost $2,500.
April 3-6, 2008: Piper joined the governor in Southcentral because -- according to state travel records authorizing the trip -- the first family was to read to students a Wasilla Christian school. The round trip flight from Juneau cost $550.
October 7-11, 2007: Palin's oldest daughter, Bristol, flew with the governor to New York City at a cost of $1,390 because she was "invited to attend Newsweek's Third Annual Women and Leadership Conference with the governor," Palin's office says. They stayed in a $707-a-night hotel for four nights.
Records show the family has traveled with Palin for events such as the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks last fall and to shoot official first family photos in Juneau, to draw raffle tickets at an event in Anchorage and to tour a teen center spearheaded by the Juneau Christian Center.
Piper, who is 7, flew with Palin the most often, followed by Todd Palin and the governor's two older daughters.
The couple's oldest son, 19-year-old Track, enlisted in the Army last September and isn't listed on any of the travel forms. Neither is the governor's youngest, Trig, who was born in April and flies for free.
The family and Palin's staff also often flew on a King Air propeller plane owned by the Department of Public Safety, according to the records.
The governor's office pays a flat rate -- which was about $900 an hour as of this spring -- when using the state plane, Perez wrote in an e-mail. When the jet was still in use, it cost roughly twice as much as the King Air, according to the Department of Public Safety.
FIRST FAMILY IN THE SPOTLIGHT
McCain announced Palin as his running mate Aug. 29, and both Palin's in-state aides and her campaign handlers have walked a fine line when it comes to the governor's children.
Even McCain's opponent, Barack Obama, declared the kids off limits as a campaign issue after the world learned of Bristol's pregnancy. But Piper is a scene-stealer on national television and Palin's new global image is inseparable from her family as she introduces Todd and the kids in speeches.
People expect things of the first family in Alaska, too, Leighow said. She said that's why the state pays for the family travel.
"There is an expectation of the first family to participate in activities across the state," she said.
The trips come at the invitation of groups that want the family at their events, so they're considered state business, Leighow said.
When he was governor, Knowles said in an interview last week, the policy was that his children could fly on the state-owned King Air propeller planes, but that unlike the Palin administration, the governor's office wouldn't buy them commercial airline tickets.
There's no specific state law or rule that says the state pays for family members to travel to events with the governor, but it's become tradition, Perez said in July.
Asked why the Palins buy commercial tickets rather than using the King Air, Leighow said access to the aircraft is limited. Lately, when the King Air isn't down for maintenance, it's being painted or fitted with new electronics, she said.
Find Kyle Hopkins' political blog online at adn.com/alaskapolitics or call him at 257-4334.