The Alaska Legislature spent $91,000 in public funds to send 42 lawmakers and staffers to a conference in Seattle last month, with several participants billing the state for more than $400 in nightly hotel costs.
Seventeen legislators and 25 staff members traveled to the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual summit last month, with costs for individual attendees as high as $4,400 for a six-night trip, according to a breakdown provided by the Legislative Affairs Agency.
Lawmakers and staff from both parties attended, as well as nonpartisan legislative employees such as attorneys and the House clerk. All but one of the 17 legislators who billed the state for at least some of the costs serve in the House. The one senator was Anna MacKinnon, co-chair of the Finance Committee and a Republican from Eagle River.
The trip came with Alaska facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall that forced about $400 million in cuts to this year's state agency operating budgets. Asked about the dozens of people who traveled to Seattle, lawmakers acknowledged that the expense could be hard to square with their message that the state is in dire fiscal distress -- even as they defended the costs for themselves and their staff.
"Politically, it doesn't look good to send anybody anywhere in times when the state is in financial straits," said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, who attended the conference along with two of his staff members. But, he added, the meetings had value. "There is a benefit to sending a contingent from Alaska -- we learn best practices," he said.
The state's expenses to send the legislators and staff to Seattle varied widely. Kawasaki used his legislative office account to pay $2,266 for the five-day trip for two of his staff. They stayed with friends and only used the public money for airfare and their conference registration fees.
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, meanwhile, spent $1,020 for his two nights at the Grand Hyatt. His chief of staff, Rex Shattuck, paid $1,530 for three nights there. The hotel, on its website, boasts "extravagant modern appointments, classic Pacific Rim styling and passionate service."
Neuman, co-chairman of the budget-writing House Finance Committee, said in a phone interview that his room was "just a bed and a bathroom" -- nothing special -- adding that uncertainty about his schedule kept him from reserving a spot in time to get a discounted rate. While lawmakers' trips are sometimes "portrayed as some type of junket," Neuman said, that wasn't the case.
"It's work. It's not fun, you know, hanging out in airports to get there," Neuman said. "I'd just as soon be out in the woods hunting moose."
Others who had at least one night of lodging costs exceeding $400 were House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer, and Laura Pierre, a staff member for MacKinnon.
Hotel rooms for two staffers for Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, Genevieve Wojtusik and Amy Saltzman, also exceeded $450 nightly, though each decided to reimburse the state $200 per night for a total of 13 nights.
The state money for Saltzman and Wojtusik came from the budget of a minor committee that McGuire chairs, the Administrative Regulation Review Committee. But McGuire said in a phone interview that she had nothing to do with her employees' decisions to attend the summit and added that approval for their trip came from the office of Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. McGuire said she didn't attend the conference.
She followed up with a text message saying: "Whatever approval is given from anyone, I do not accept $500 a night hotels any time for anything. Not even in my personal life for personal travel. Not even my honeymoon!"
A spokesman for Alaska's Senate majority, to which McGuire belongs, added in a prepared statement that both Saltzman and Wojtusik are involved in the Women's Legislative Network, an NCSL committee. The two staffers needed to extend their trip to attend a meeting of the network, and ended up paying higher than typical rates because the rooms NCSL had secured at a discount were sold out, said the spokesman, Daniel McDonald.
The annual NCSL summit convenes more than 5,000 lawmakers, staff, business representatives and others interested in public policy, the organization says. Some lawmakers attend the summit on "scholarships." But even at that, the Alaska Legislature could have indirectly paid the bill -- its membership dues to the NCSL amounted to $107,000 this year.
Lawmakers say that their robust participation in the summit proceedings gives Alaska a voice in national policy discussions.
"I think the people of Alaska are getting value from my participation," said Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River.
Saddler is the vice chair of NCSL's committee on resources and infrastructure; he said he's used information gathered at conferences to help him create formal policy statements, known as resolutions, at the state level. He's also worked to ensure Alaska's interests are represented at NCSL, like when he said he helped put language into a resolution about rail car safety that endorsed the use of pipelines instead.
Asked whether he thought the Legislature needed to send more than three dozen participants to Seattle, Saddler responded: "That's a question."
"Everyone thinks they're important, of course, and likes to go," he said. "I work hard. I go to every possible session I can -- I don't party."
Approval for the trips came from several places, according to the breakdown from the Legislative Affairs Agency. Chenault, the House speaker, signed off on travel for 10 lawmakers, including his own travel; the House Finance Committee's budget paid for Neuman and Saddler, as well as for three staff members.
Chenault didn't respond to a request for comment but said in a previous interview that he's not responsible for the activities of all legislators or staff. He added that the majority of lawmakers who participated will "bring something back that will benefit the state of Alaska at some point in time."
Chenault, Neuman and MacKinnon were among six lawmakers who signed a letter to Gov. Bill Walker late last year, at the onset of the state's fiscal crisis, saying that the governor should consider limiting state employees' travel to that "necessary to carry out administrative duties or emergency response."
In their own budget approved this summer, however, the Legislature actually increased by 3.8 percent the money it allots to its own travel. Leaders downplayed that figure, saying that budgeted figures aren't always spent.
Neuman said news coverage of the Legislature typically omits travel requests or staff raises that get turned down by legislative leaders.
"There's trips that get denied -- not every request gets approved," Neuman said.
MacKinnon, the Eagle River senator, said lawmakers will need to continue policing their travel costs.
As for her own trip, she said: "In the end, I have to answer to my constituents about making that decision."