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Politics

Alaska Legislature's overall travel spending down 25 percent

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 4, 2016

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature cut its overall travel spending last year to $500,000 from $660,000 in 2014, while top officials in Gov. Bill Walker's administration spent slightly more than their predecessors.

Walker, his chief of staff, his 14 commissioners and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott spent a total of $630,000 on travel in 2015, according to the newly released executive branch travel report. That's up slightly from 2014, when the administration of former Gov. Sean Parnell spent at a rate that would have added up to $620,000 if extrapolated to cover the full year. Parnell lost his re-election campaign to Walker and left office at the end of November.

Legislators' spending, meanwhile, dropped by about 25 percent, even as a few saw their expenses go up, including Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. McGuire spent $40,000 and Chenault $27,000 on travel last year, according to lawmakers' annual travel report.

The disclosures come as Alaska faces a huge budget problem: a $5.4 billion spending plan with a $3.8 billion deficit. Travel expenses have become an area of focus for both branches of government recently as politicians try to square their own spending habits with calls for financial discipline from citizens and legislators themselves.

The Legislature, after some of its leaders urged Walker to consider a freeze on non-essential travel, drew attention last summer when it spent more than $90,000 to send dozens of lawmakers and staff to a conference in Seattle. Walker, meanwhile, announced travel restrictions at a news conference last month, saying the administration was formalizing procedures that many state agencies had already put into place.

In an emailed statement, Walker's communications director, Grace Jang, said the governor and Mallott both brought back "direct benefits" to the state from lobbying trips they'd made to Washington, D.C., including policy changes that would stimulate new oil development and help the state cut its spending on the Medicaid health care program. Walker said he would be the state's leading lobbyist to Congress after sharply reducing the size and stature of the Alaska's office in Washington.

Several administration officials also had moving expenses last year, Jang said.

"Now that the administration has settled in, so to speak, and travel restrictions have been formalized throughout the executive branch, we will likely see a smaller travel total for this year," Jang said.

The travel spending by Walker’s commissioners ranged from $52,000 by Mark Myers, the natural resources commissioner, to $20,000 for Gary Folger, the commissioner of public safety.

Myers took three trips to Houston, Texas, on oil and gas issues and eight trips to Washington, D.C., often for meetings connected to the Department of Energy.

Chris Hladick, the commerce commissioner, took two trips to Europe. He went to Norway and Iceland on separate trips that cost a total of $14,000 — that sum also included some in-state travel — for meetings of a task force on "Arctic marine cooperation" and a conference on Arctic issues.

Among the expenses for Val Davidson, the health commissioner, was about $700 connected to her service on the board of the First Alaskans Institute, a nonprofit that advances the interests of Alaska Natives. In a prepared statement, Davidson said those expenses were supposed to be covered by the institute, but were "mistakenly processed by the state of Alaska and can easily be recouped."

The 288-page executive travel report also included disclosures from nine other administration officials with more than $25,000 in expenses.

They include Kristin Ryan -- the director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's spill prevention and response division, who attended an international meeting on emergencies in Iceland. Ed Fogels, deputy natural resources commissioner, took three trips to Washington, D.C., and another to New Mexico.

A department spokesman, Jeremy Woodrow, said in an email that Campbell, who retired in December, was serving as a director for two regions, and recent personnel changes should eliminate the need for extra travel for his position. Hatter, Woodrow added, is the commissioner's "principal deputy," and directly oversees employees in both Anchorage and Juneau.

The transportation department, Woodrow added, spent $60,000 less on travel in 2015 than it did the year before.

At the Department of Public Safety, Dan Spencer, a division director, spent $35,600 and made 30 trips between Anchorage and Juneau. A spokesperson for the department said all the staff in Spencer's division were in Anchorage, but his position was relocated to Juneau for 10 months "to accommodate the appointee who resided in Juneau."

Spencer no longer works for the department and his position is being moved to Anchorage, said the spokesman, Tim DeSpain.

Among lawmakers, the travel expenses detailed in the Legislature's annual report dropped sharply. At $500,000 for 2015, they've essentially been cut in half since 2013, when lawmakers spent a total of $985,000, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, alone billed the state for $47,000 in expenses.

That accounting, however, is not complete. It omits what lawmakers spent on travel out of their dedicated "office accounts," the business allowance each gets for regular expenses and day-to-day business — $16,000 for House members and $20,000 for senators.

It also does not include money spent on travel by legislative employees, like the trips to the Seattle conference by two-dozen staffers.

Herron's destinations included Vancouver, British Columbia; Montana; several trips to Washington, D.C.; and about a dozen trips from Bethel to Anchorage, primarily for legislative meetings.

Stedman was next on the list. His destinations included Washington, D.C.; New Mexico; and San Antonio, Texas, for meetings on energy issues. He serves on the Senate Resources Committee but is not part of its leadership.

Chenault, the House speaker, was fourth among legislators, with his travel rising to $27,000 last year from $19,000 in 2014. He went to Seattle, New Orleans, Nashville, Miami and Ireland. The Ireland trip was in his role as an executive member of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group based in Colorado.

Chenault, in an interview this week, said his total travel bill this year wasn't a surprise, given his role at NCSL."I expected my travel to probably go up," Chenault said. "Some years it's up, some years it's down."

The trips, he said, give him an opportunity to talk with "like-minded people" whose states are facing similar challenges.

Chenault said he couldn't think of any specific ideas or proposals he brought back from his trip to Ireland. But, he added: "I do think it does us good to go see how other governments run that are different from ours, so that we may bring some ideas back that help us in our endeavors every day."

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