Legislature funded lame-duck trips to Las Vegas and Quebec, even as it scales back overall travel

JUNEAU — Lame-duck Alaska legislators spent more than $15,000 on Outside trips last year after they'd been fired by voters or decided to retire, according to newly released public records.

In addition, a current senator's travel topped $32,000 — even as the public and other legislators have called to rein in spending amid the state's budget crisis.

Those demands for reductions appear to have produced some success: Despite some big individual expenses, lawmakers' overall travel was down sharply, from $500,000 in 2015 to just over $300,000 in 2016, according to the Legislature's latest travel report.

[Rural Alaska legislator billed state more than $20,000 to ship appliances, piano]

But as legislative leaders call for further spending reductions for Gov. Bill Walker's executive-branch agencies, the departing lawmakers' end-of-year trips to destinations that included Las Vegas and Mississippi suggest that the Legislature's own budget still has cash to spare.

Among last year's state-paid trips:

• Bethel Rep. Bob Herron, who lost his Democratic primary in August, billed for more than $1,400 in per diem and travel in November to attend a Las Vegas meeting of the Specialty Equipment Market Association's state leadership caucus, an auto industry organization. Herron's wife went with him, according to public records that show she received $715 in lodging and meals from the group. Herron, who paid for his part of the trip with a special account as the House's former majority whip, didn't respond to requests for comment.


• Wasilla Republican Sen. Charlie Huggins, who retired and didn't contest the November election, spent $2,000 on a sportsman's legislative summit in Mississippi in late November and early December. Huggins, whose trip was paid from an account controlled by former Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, didn't respond to requests for comment.

• Wasilla Rep. Lynn Gattis, who lost her GOP primary bid for Huggins' Senate seat, spent $2,500 to attend a pair of legislative conferences in Washington, D.C., and Virginia in December. Gattis — who now helps lead a group pushing for budget cuts called "Mission Critical Alaska" — said she was invited to deliver a speech and meet with an education group to which she's belonged for the last four years, though she wouldn't give details about her trip. "You'll find out all in good time," she said in a phone interview.

• Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire, who announced her retirement in 2015, spent more than $1,300 to attend an Arctic-themed conference in Quebec in December. Since leaving office in January, she's launched a business, the Arctic Advocacy Group, that "provides reliable and constant access to and for governments and regulators," according to an online description. McGuire also used a committee budget under her control to pay more than $5,000 for flights home to Anchorage, rental cars in her hometown and even a hotel room during last year's legislative session. She defended her trip to Quebec by saying her advocacy has put Alaska "in the driver's seat" on Arctic issues, and said her in-state travel helped her stay connected to constituents outside of "the bubble of Juneau."

Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens led all legislative travelers, spending $32,660 — more than half of which was for conferences in places like Portland, Oregon; Chicago; Austin, Texas; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Those expenses don't include the cost of Stevens' November visit to India that was organized by an Alaska-funded group, the Council of State Governments — a trip he initially described as a "personal vacation."

Stevens, a former Senate president, declined a request for an interview through an aide.

[Read the 2016 legislative travel report]

The current Republican Senate president, Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, and last year's president, Meyer, also refused interview requests, instead sending a written response to questions through a spokesman, Daniel McDonald.

McDonald's response highlighted the overall decrease in legislative travel spending, which has fallen to just over $300,000 from a high of $1.1 million in 2011, McDonald said.

"Legislators are accountable to their constituents," McDonald wrote. He added: "We challenge you to find an executive branch agency that has cut their travel expenses by two-thirds."

Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, last year's House GOP majority leader, and this year's minority leader, also argued that each member's travel expenses were his or her personal business — not something that leaders should have to defend.

"My job is to worry about what I do and what I spend, and I stand ready to be accountable to my constituents," said Millett, whose own destinations last year included Washington, D.C.; Virginia; and California.

Asked if she thought there should be more oversight of other members' spending, Millett responded that she'd be "more than happy to discuss it" if it comes up in committee. But she wouldn't pledge to press the point herself.

Lawmakers' travel expenses have continually undermined Republican legislative leaders' own push for broad spending cuts since the onset of Alaska's budget crisis two years ago.

The Legislature spent $91,000 sending more than three dozen lawmakers and staff to a Seattle conference in 2015, even after GOP legislative leaders sent a letter to the governor urging him to restrict executive branch travel.

The same year, McGuire, the Anchorage Republican senator, spent $39,900 on travel, including trips to Paris and Greenland. She also used an account under her control — the budget of the Administrative Regulation Review Committee, which held one meeting between 2015 and 2016 — to fly home to Anchorage over weekends during the 2015 legislative session.

When questioned at the time, Senate leaders could point to no public purpose for those trips. But they did not stop McGuire from spending another $5,000 from the same account on seven more trips to Anchorage in 2016, which included billing the state for rental cars, a room at the Hotel Captain Cook downtown, and valet parking while she was in her home city, according to her travel records.


An aide to McGuire, Trevor Gutierrez, wrote in an email to legislative support staff that McGuire needed the hotel room because "her current home is under construction."

[Read Sen. Lesil McGuire's travel records]

McGuire didn't return a phone call, but she said in a series of text messages that the regulation review committee has "a very important role in state governance as a check and balance on regulatory power."

"It is true that it is not a traditional committee that meets in formal public meetings the way other committees meet, but its work is important nonetheless. During the last legislative session I was in meetings all the time about regulations that were disrupting the lives of Alaskans," she said. "I can assure you that I have worked long, hard hours for the people of Alaska."

McDonald, the Senate spokesman, said only McGuire could say if she conducted any legislative business on her visits home. He also said, without providing details, that Meyer, the former Senate president, denied several of McGuire's travel requests.

McGuire also defended the value of the December conference on the Arctic she attended in Quebec, where she spoke at a forum on infrastructure projects with former Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

Alice Rogoff, the publisher of Alaska Dispatch News, also appeared at the conference, and she chairs the advisory board of the group that organized it, Arctic Circle.

"My work in the Arctic has put Alaska in the driver's seat, where we were once relegated to the back of the bus," said McGuire, a former co-chair of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission.


Other retiring House lawmakers who went on state-paid trips in their final months in office were Anchorage Republican Craig Johnson and Soldotna Republican Kurt Olson.

Olson spent $3,500 to go to New Orleans in September for a meeting of the Energy Council, an organization of energy-producing states. He didn't respond to a phone message.

Johnson, who lost his GOP primary bid in August to take McGuire's place in the Senate, spent $4,900 to attend two meetings of the Council of State Governments, in Idaho in September and in Williamsburg, Virginia, in December.

Johnson said in a phone interview that he wanted to appear at the meetings to ensure that Alaskans and other western-state legislators would be represented in the organization's leadership in the future. Asked if he could have lobbied by phone instead, he responded: "Those are conversations that are better had in-person."

"You can make a judgment call. My judgment was that it's better to be there in person," Johnson said. He added: "You never have to worry about me ever doing it again."

Herron, the Bethel legislator who lost his Democratic primary in August, went to Las Vegas in November after spending $4,800 on an East Coast trip earlier in the fall.

The East Coast trip included a whaling conference on the vacation island of Nantucket, next to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Arctic meetings in Maine. Rogoff, the Alaska Dispatch News publisher and an Arctic advocate, covered $2,000 in lodging and food expenses for Herron and his wife, according to public records.

The speaker of the House's new majority coalition, Dillingham Democrat Bryce Edgmon, sounded chagrined when a reporter informed him about some of his colleagues' trips in 2016.

"Oh, geez," he said.

Edgmon argued that travel can give lawmakers new insights into national issues like resource development and opioid addiction. But he said the Legislature has to be careful about its own spending "if we're restricting the state agency budgets and, ostensibly, travel by government officials."

Still, Edgmon wouldn't commit to pushing any specific travel reforms or limits, like requiring all legislative travel expenses to be approved by leadership.

"To the extent that there's any travel authorized by the speaker, it's going to have to be justified and there's going to have to be tangible benefits involved," Edgmon said. "To what extent that produces a difference from the practices of the past, time will tell."


The Legislature's travel report, released Tuesday, gives an incomplete picture of lawmakers' trips, since it doesn't include expenses paid by other organizations or groups, some of which charge dues back to Alaska.

That other travel, often paid by entities with corporate backers, was disclosed on a state ethics website this week.

Among those trips was one by Meyer, the former Senate president who remains a member of leadership, to the tropics in December. The meeting, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was part of a "legislative leaders symposium."

Participants were schooled on "successful negotiating strategies" and "the art of persuasion," as well as "current economic trends" at meetings organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures — a group partially funded with dues paid by the Alaska Legislature's budget.

Millett went to Hawaii, where she gave a speech at a conference organized by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, which paid $3,470 for her expenses.

Another disclosure detailed an August conference attended by the previous House speaker, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, in Vermont.


The Vermont conference was also organized by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, a group that offers "professional development" for lawmakers. It lists companies like MasterCard, McDonald's, Comcast, Wal-Mart, General Motors and 1-800-CONTACTS on its "advisory council."

Chenault's disclosure — and a separate one for his wife — accounted for $1,970 in lodging and gifts, including a shirt, a mug, cheese, syrup and a boat ride.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com