Governor's staff defends her expense claims

$805,312: Compared to Murkowski, and Knowles, Palin is called "frugal"; $18,000 in per diem while in Wasilla.

February 23, 2009 

Gov. Sarah Palin, under scrutiny for charging the state for expenses while living in her Wasilla home, is actually living much more inexpensively than her two immediate predecessors, according to an analysis provided Monday by her staff.

Officials compared Palin's expenses for items including travel, lodging, and meals to that of former Govs. Frank Murkowski and Tony Knowles. They said she's spent about $900,000 less in her first two years than Murkowski did his last two years.

Her expenses were also lower than for Knowles his last two years, though the difference was not as dramatic.

"With the exception of former Gov. Murkowski's much derided purchase and use of a jet, Gov. Palin is not criticizing her predecessors' expenses, but rather demonstrating that she has been frugal," said Bill McAllister, Palin's communications director, in a news conference Monday.

Still, Palin has decided to give up a state Chevy Suburban -- a loaner from her security detail -- that she had use of while working in Anchorage and living in Wasilla, said Bob Cockrell, part of her security staff.

"We turned it in today," Cockrell said.

Palin's decision on the vehicle related to a recent determination that she owed income taxes on the value of any personal use of it, McAllister said.

The governor intends to start driving her own car, Cockrell said, adding that he isn't pleased with the decision because her car -- a Volkswagen Jetta -- is small and not as safe as the state rig.

Counting her travel, her family's travel, lodging, meal allowances and the cost of running the Juneau governor's house, Palin's expenses her first two years amounted to about $805,312, according to figures provided by the administration. That compares to close to $1.6 million for Murkowski his last two years, the figures show.

Plus, she saved an additional $125,000 by reducing her security staff, though McAllister said he believed the positions were recently added back in.

The biggest differences relate to billings for use of state aircraft -- including the jet bought by the Murkowski administration that Palin made a big deal of selling.

Most of the criticism of Palin and her living expenses concerns the $60-a-day for meals and incidentals she collects when she works outside her assigned duty station, which is Juneau. That money will now be taxed as income.

Since taking office in December 2006, she's collected more than $18,000 in meal money during the time she was staying in her Wasilla home. That figure is higher than has been previously reported because it includes charges through Dec. 14. (Palin hasn't charged the state for her expenses during September and October, when she was running for vice president, according to a state executive compensation and travel report for 2008.)

McAllister said that meal money is minor in the scheme of things, and that she's saving more than enough in other areas to make up for it.

Besides her $125,000-a-year salary, Palin is entitled to lodging, and when she's away from Juneau, per diem money, McAllister said. Plus, the state covers the cost of the First Family's groceries when they are in Juneau, he said.

Palin could have been billing the state for a hotel room in Anchorage, as did Knowles, who leased out his home here while he was governor. And the state paid for Murkowski to have an apartment downtown. Palin, who spends more than half her time in the Anchorage office, commutes from Wasilla, her staff noted.

Palin cut expenses at the Juneau house by getting rid of the cook, and operational costs also are lower because the family is away so much, McAllister said. Costs for the house under Palin are more than $100,000 less than during Murkowski's last two years.

State officials revealed last week that Palin owes taxes on the daily living expenses.

The state turned to outside tax experts after questions came up during the presidential campaign. On Feb. 13, the state received the determination, Kim Garnero, state finance director, said Monday at the news conference.

Revised W-2s for 2007 and 2008 were sent out for Palin last week, Garnero said.

"What pushed the governor into a taxable situation is she earned the majority of her salary in Anchorage, which made it her tax home," Garnero said.

Palin could only collect expense money tax free if she were away from her tax home.

Some of Palin's stated justifications to work in Anchorage and collect the expense money raise questions of their own: an interview with Fox News on Nov. 9, a telephone call with newly defeated U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole on Nov. 21 and photos with the University of Alaska Anchorage basketball teams on Nov. 28 and 29.

The state travel authorization forms don't give Palin and her aides much room to explain her reasons for being outside Juneau. Palin is on duty 24-7, often sends e-mails in the middle of the night, and was working on more than the documents indicate, McAllister said.

"She had a full blown Cabinet meeting. She met with her gasline team. She met with her budget director. She met with her legislative liaison," McAllister said. "I mean all those things don't show up."

McAllister said he couldn't reveal how much Palin owes in taxes.

"The governor's personal taxes are a private matter," he said. "She'll pay whatever she owes. Whatever the IRS says, she'll pay it."

It's not clear if she intends to continue to collect the expense money.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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