Legislators run up expenses at out-of-state conferences

TRAVEL: About one-fourth left state just in the past few weeks.

August 21, 2011 

More than a dozen Alaska legislators went to a conference in Hawaii this month at state expense, with Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman spending six nights in a suite with a bill averaging more than $900 a night. Two other legislators just got back from state travel to a New Orleans meeting of a pro-business group that crafts "model legislation" for lawmakers to use back home.

Summer and fall are the major travel seasons for Alaska lawmakers, who are between legislative sessions. It can get expensive, with Stedman's Waikiki beach suite at the Council of State Governments-West conference an extreme example.

Stedman told the Daily News his staff made his arrangements with the Sheraton and he mistakenly thought that he was getting his suite upgrade for free. He said he'd asked his staff to check when making the reservations if he could get a complimentary upgrade to a bigger room. He said his staff then reported back that he would be getting a room upgrade.

Stedman said he was not told the rate when he checked in and was handed the key to a suite (the front desk at the Sheraton Waikiki would not confirm when the Daily News called whether guests are routinely asked to sign off on the rate at check-in, referring the question to the publicity department, which did not return the call). Stedman said he realized the cost when he got the bill at check-out.

"I about crapped. ... It's one of those screw-ups internally," said Stedman, Republican co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Stedman said his recollection is that the room rate he discovered at checkout was $695 a night. The Legislative Affairs Agency says it reimbursed Stedman's hotel bill for six nights and that the cost was $5,544, an average of $924 a night (a total which would include tax, "resort fee" and possibly other charges). Stedman said he'd go through his records to sort it out.

Stedman said he did not consider paying the bill himself because "I didn't really mess it up, it's an internal screwup within the office." Stedman, a frequent traveler on state business, said he was embarrassed by the suite cost and that it wouldn't happen again.

TOTAL 2010 TRAVEL BILL: $710,300

Alaska's 60 lawmakers spent a combined total of more than $710,300 on state-paid travel last year in Alaska and out of state, according to expenses tallied by the Legislative Affairs Agency. That does not include their relocation costs to and from Juneau for the annual legislative sessions. The top 2010 travelers were Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Senate Finance co-chairman Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, who each had more than $44,500 in travel expenses in state and out.

That includes their visits to Anchorage and elsewhere in Alaska for meetings. It also includes a seafood expo in Belgium, a trade mission to Russia and Korea, and attendance at various conferences and policy forums in Lower 48 cities.

Legislators say the travel is valuable for the state, allowing them to promote Alaska and to attend forums on oil and gas, education, health care, taxation and other issues that make them better able to serve their constituents back home.

The travel has continued this year, including a visit by Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, to Greece for the Special Olympics in June. Ten legislators have confirmed for the "Norway policy tour" from Aug. 27 through Sept. 4.

Much of the travel is to various conferences, including this month's trips by lawmakers to the meetings in Hawaii and New Orleans.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Meyer, among the lawmakers who attended the Council of State Governments-West conference in Honolulu, said he can see a time coming when the state treasury isn't so flush and the Senate president cuts down on authorizing travel.

"I do know that as things tighten up for us, which they will in the near future, travel is going to be one of the first things that we are going to have to address," said the South Anchorage Republican. "Because that's one of those things you don't have to do. Yet on the other hand I think when you do have a surplus, which we do now, it's important we keep people trained and current."

Not all the legislators who went to Hawaii have turned in their expenses to the state for reimbursement yet. But so far the tally is almost $35,000, including airfare, meals, hotel rooms and conference fees for the legislators who attended.

POLICY FORUMS AND POLYNESIAN REVUE

CSG-West is a nonpartisan policy group made up of legislators from 13 Western states. The group's annual conferences are rotated among states. This year it was at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, a venue that describes itself as a beach resort that "ushers in a new level of comfort, style and panache to the Waikiki scene, promising an inspired vacation for one and all."

The conference was held over four days from July 30 to Aug. 2. At least seven of the Alaska lawmakers arrived July 28, according to their hotel bills, with conference registration on the 29th and an invitation-only meeting at 2 p.m. on that day.

The Hawaii hotel bills for each of the Alaska legislators ranged between $729 and $1,276, not counting Stedman and his suite. The Alaskans also received a state meal per diem which totaled more than $750 each for most of them.

The state paid the $350 conference fee for most of the Alaska legislators and costs for shuttle buses and taxis in Hawaii.

Sens. Meyer, Stedman, McGuire, Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage; John Coghill, R-North Pole; Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage; Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla; and Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, had state-paid travel to the conference, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency. So did Reps. Lynn, Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak; Carl Gatto, R-Palmer; Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage; and Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake.

At least two others, Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, were also seen at the event and didn't return messages from the Daily News asking if they planned to pay their bills themselves or submit expenses for the state to reimburse.

If Holmes and Kawasaki did go to the conference, that means a full one-quarter of the Alaska Legislature was in Honolulu.

Sen. Meyer said the CSG-West conferences are good for exchanging ideas with other Western lawmakers in areas like dealing with the budget and the economy.

Meyer said CSG-West waived his conference fee because he served on an afternoon education panel. "It was about the challenges of education and how to get scores up and higher graduation rates, the problems dealing with education that all the Western states have," he said.

He said this year he particularly appreciated a training session at the conference on making effective political presentations. "That's a problem that I have personally is that I tend to give speeches and not relay the messages," he said.

Sitka's Sen. Stedman, who also didn't submit a conference fee for state reimbursement, said he gave a presentation at the CSG-West conference on Alaska's fiscal position and was struck by how much financially healthier Alaska is than the other Western states. Stedman said he also pressed Hawaiian legislators about why Hawaii wasn't trying to buy Alaska natural gas instead of relying on diesel fuel to power the islands. He said they didn't seem to get it.

The agenda for the CSG-West Honolulu conference included forums on topics including health care, fiscal affairs, economic development, education, the environment and international trade. The schedule also included time for sightseeing and socializing.

On one of the four days, there were no meetings listed on the agenda after lunch but there was a Pearl Harbor tour. The afternoon agenda for another of the days included a meeting of the CSG-West executive committee and a downtown Honolulu tour. There were evening receptions, a hospitality suite and a luau with a Polynesian revue on the final night.

'MODEL LEGISLATION'

The state sent two other legislators to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in New Orleans, from Aug. 3-6.

ALEC says it is a nonprofit advocacy group for free markets and limited government that counts as its members more than 2,000 state lawmakers as well as 300 private-sector members, including corporations, trade groups and nonprofits.

Bloomberg News reported last month that companies including Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries have helped craft ALEC "model legislation" by paying to be members of the organization and to join one of the group's legislative-writing task forces. The idea is that legislators from around the nation can take the legislation and use it in their states.

Palmer Rep. Gatto cited ALEC's model legislation, the "Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act," this year when he introduced his "Alaska Health Freedom Act."

It sought to prevent the state from enforcing the new federal requirement that people must purchase health insurance. Similar bills were introduced in 42 states.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River and Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, went to the ALEC conference this year at the New Orleans Marriott.

Neither has submitted his expenses to the state yet.

Dyson didn't return a phone message asking about the conference. Keller said in a Wednesday interview that he would be submitting his expenses to the state. He said he or his staff would provide a list of his expenses to the Daily News but they hadn't as of Sunday afternoon.

Keller is the Alaska state chairman for ALEC. He said the conference included task forces on pressing issues, and that he was a member of the education task force. He said he's also particularly involved in health care issues with the group.

"I think it's a fabulous organization, it has really helped me. Because what it does is it gives you the perspective of what's going on in other states," he said.

Keller said he sometimes gets ideas from the organization's model legislation but he doesn't introduce the language verbatim as his own bills.

He said he doesn't recall specifically whether Exxon is a corporate sponsor but that it is common for such legislative organizations to have sponsors. Keller said he likes that the private sector has a vote in crafting the group's model legislation.

"That's the beauty of ALEC, really, because you see the vetting is not just with the politicians," he said.


Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.

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