Alaska News

Budget woes result in long-sought crackdown on legislative travel

JUNEAU -- As budgets tighten, top leaders in the Alaska Legislature say they're going to be cracking down on travel and keeping legislators at work.

Members of the Democratic minorities in the House and Senate say that's what they've been doing all along.

First to feel the impact of the travel restrictions imposed by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, is the Energy Council. That's a popular midsession trip to a conference in Washington, D.C., that results in most legislative work in Juneau grinding to a halt. Twenty of the 60 legislators went to the Energy Council in 2013, down from 28 in 2010.

Even committee chairs who want to keep working during Energy Council week have been unable to meet because they lacked enough members for a quorum, they have said. Legislators who don't take the trip to Washington often return to their home districts during the Energy Council break.

Chenault said that's not going to happen this year.

"We're going to keep working, I've already explained that to my caucus," said Chenault, who leads the Republican-dominated House Majority.

Another change will be that this year the Legislature will only pay for a single trip back to legislators' home districts during the session. Members already have their way paid when they relocate to and from Juneau for the session.

"What I've agreed to pay to my people is one trip home for constituent meetings or town hall meetings," Chenault said.

Meyer said the Senate will match what the House is doing, both for consistency's sake and because it is a sound policy.

"I think we were paying for too much travel back and forth," he said.

Information released by the Legislative Affairs Agency on Friday shows that legislators averaged travel expenses of more than $10,000 each last year, not counting moving to Juneau for the session itself, which is accounted for separately.

The reasons for the trips back home are legitimate, Meyer said, but with growing budget deficits, they are difficult to justify to the public.

The policy isn't as ironclad as it sounds, however.

Each legislator has an "office account" for other expenses. The accounts are $16,000 for House members and $20,000 for senators. Outside groups or organizations, some of which are funded by the Legislature, may provide travel money as well.

Chenault and Meyer said members who want more than one trip back to their home district should look to their office accounts for the funds, but that might come at the expense of other activities, such as newsletters.

Meyer said it can cost $7,000 to send a newsletter to an entire Senate district, so legislators may have to weigh the value of town hall meetings against newsletters.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said the travel restrictions were long overdue.

He said the House Majority, which controls the budgets, has already limited how much members of the Democratic minority could travel, but now restrictions should apply to everyone.

"It's hard to justify going on trips when we have a $3.5 billion deficit," he said.

Meyer said the Legislature needs to send a message that it is cutting costs.

"We need to keep working on cutting costs. This is just a first step," he said.

Tuck agreed.

"If we don't tighten our belts, how do we expect others to tighten their belts?" Tuck said.

Chenault said trips could still be approved when a case can be made that it is in the state's best interest.

That's unlikely to include lobbying trips about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he said.

That's been a justification for Energy Council and other trips in the past, he said, that Alaska legislators would lobby either in Congress, or before agencies, while attending the Energy Council.

"If we can see a benefit of sending a couple of people back, we may do that and may have some type of resource meetings," Chenault said.

But given years of inability to win approval to open ANWR and a recent decision by President Barack Obama to further restrict ANWR access, it is not clear that past lobbying efforts have provided any benefit, he said.

"We may not send anybody back, we are going to have to do it in an organized fashion if we're going to do anything on ANWR," Chenault said.

Meyer said he would approve Energy Council travel for Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, a past president of the national group. Stedman serves on the group's executive committee and on subcommittees, and can effectively represent Alaska, he said.

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