Our view: Suite life; who pays?

Lawmakers step over the line at Alaskans' expense

August 22, 2011 

Alaskans love to complain about lawmakers' travel on the public dime.

But Sen. Bert Stedman's hotel suite upgrade, and the travel of some of his colleagues to an ideologically driven conference in New Orleans, set a new low standard.

In fairness, Sen. Stedman said he asked his staff to inquire about a free upgrade to a suite at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel for the Council of State Governments-West. He said he didn't find out that the upgrade wasn't free until he checked out and saw the room rate was $695 a night. Stedman's claim for reimbursement from the state was $5,544, an average of $924 a night, once taxes and other fees were included.

The senator says it was a foul-up by his office, so it hadn't occurred to him to personally cover the difference between an ordinary room and a suite. He figures we should cover the whole tab.

How is that right? It isn't. Any lawmaker traveling at state expense should be comfortable. Nice room, transportation and meals covered. But common sense suggests than if a lawmaker is going to ask for extras, he'd better make sure we aren't paying for it, because Alaskans have no obligation to pay for such perks. It may be his staff's mistake but Sen. Stedman is still responsible for the bill.

The New Orleans trip is troubling because the state paid for lawmakers to attend a conference on writing "model legislation" organized by a conservative advocacy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC reports that its membership includes more than 2,000 state lawmakers and 300 private sector members, including corporations, trade groups and nonprofits.

The group promotes legislation to deregulate markets and reduce the size and power of government. That fits with the political agendas of lawmakers like Rep. Wes Keller and Sen. Fred Dyson, both of whom attended the ALEC conference early this month.

But it's not the state's job to pay for lawmakers to hear what legislation corporations and trade groups would like to see passed into law. No matter what those interests are, from left to right on the political spectrum, lawmakers who want to attend a conference based on a particular political, economic or philosophical agenda should do so on their own money.

Rep. Keller says Alaskans should pay so the private sector has a vote in vetting model legislation. Apparently he thinks we don't have enough corporate lobbying in Juneau. We're old-school in this matter: Lobbyists should come to the Legislature; we shouldn't have to pay to send legislators to lobbyists.

The ALEC gathering is entirely a convenience for corporate interests and a junket for ideologically aligned legislators. It is efficient for the lobbyists, because it allows them to send the laws they'd like proposed to 50 state Capitols at once.

If Alaska lawmakers want to go, fine. But Alaska citizens shouldn't have to pay for it.

We're not against all legislative travel and conferencing, although modern communications open some economical opportunities to confer from home. Lawmakers can learn from face-to-face meetings with colleagues from other parts of the country and can establish contacts useful for the state. But we're against $900-a-night hotel suites, against a quarter of the Legislature flying off on Waikiki junkets and against paying for lobbyists to wine and dine politically pliable legislators.

Our lawmakers often give lip service to the notion that they are stewards of the public treasury. We want to see them actually act like it. When they travel on state business, that business should be essential and they should neither live large nor pursue ideological agendas.

BOTTOM LINE: Alaska lawmakers need to be more careful with Alaska's money.

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