JUNEAU -- A single Alaska state senator spent $39,900 on travel in 2015, including two trips overseas — a $7,000 increase from the previous year, even as the state faces an escalating budget crisis.
Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire, who's not seeking re-election in 2016, spent $3,400 of her total travel expenses from the budget of an obscure committee under her control for weekend trips home to Anchorage during last year's legislative session. And another $11,300 went to cover separate trips to Greenland and Paris.
Her total travel costs for 2015 were the highest in the Legislature and represented 8 percent of the spending of all 60 legislators. The second highest, Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, spent $33,600. Total travel spending by the Legislature last year dropped to $500,000 from $660,000 in 2014, according to a new report.
In a brief interview earlier this week as she was leaving the Capitol, McGuire defended the expenses, saying they were necessary to ensure the state had a voice in key Arctic policy debates. She refused to give a follow-up interview to answer detailed questions about her spending.
The Arctic meetings, she said, "require physical presence."
"If it's something I can attend telephonically, I do," she said. "We spend a lot of time saying no now."
McGuire's $5,000 trip to Paris, however, was not for an official proceeding, according to travel records. Instead, it was to participate in an Arctic symposium organized by a 1-year-old French nonprofit, the French Polar Cluster, and a consulting company run by Rachel Kallander, the deputy manager of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's re-election campaign.
McGuire's other destinations last year included meetings and conferences in Washington, D.C., Denver, Seattle, Montana state and the Canadian resort town of Banff.
McGuire is a member of the Republican-led Senate majority caucus — the group of lawmakers that's been most aggressive in pushing for austerity measures in response to the state budget crisis. In a letter to Gov. Bill Walker before last year's legislative session, three GOP caucus leaders — Senate President Kevin Meyer of Anchorage and finance committee co-chairs Anna MacKinnon of Eagle River and Pete Kelly of Fairbanks — said the governor should consider limiting state agency travel "to only that necessary to carry out essential administrative duties or emergency response."
John Coghill, a North Pole Republican and the Senate's majority leader, said in an interview his caucus gave McGuire "a lot of slack, because we thought our voice in the Arctic was important."
"She's a powerful, credible voice," he said in an interview. McGuire and Herron were co-chairs of Alaska's Arctic Policy Commission, Coghill said, adding: "They put Alaska on the map, internationally."
McGuire was elected to the state House in 2000, then moved to the Senate in 2006. She announced in September that she would not seek re-election.
Her travel budget previously was scrutinized last summer, after two of her employees billed the state $400 a night for their hotel rooms, and more than $8,500 total, while they attended a conference in Seattle. The employees later reimbursed the state $2,600.
The money spent by McGuire's staff came from the same committee budget she used to pay for the five flights home to Anchorage, and for a rental car back home, over weekends during last year's legislative session.
The Administrative Regulation Review Committee held no meetings last year, according to a legislative schedule. But it has a $55,000 budget under a line item for "services" that can be used for travel at McGuire's sole discretion.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, is proposing to eliminate the committee. The committee currently has no power to veto executive-branch regulations, which must instead by done through legislation — but no such efforts appear to have been made since 2003, according to a statement from Chenault's office in support of his bill.
McGuire's travel records show that $3,000 from the committee's budget paid for flights between Juneau and Anchorage spanning weekends and holidays during last year's legislative session.
Another $450 paid for the rental cars.
In a prepared statement sent through a spokeswoman, McGuire said her regulation review committee "does a lot of work on regulations all the time."
"We have an attorney in Anchorage we meet with, and people bring up issues every week," the statement quoted her as saying. "The judiciary committee and the Arctic – the issues I work on – don't always involve a committee hearing; most of the time they do not."
The spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether McGuire met with the attorney on each of her five weekend trips to Anchorage last year, or why a rental car was needed for each trip.
Asked if lawmakers should be able to spend money from their committee budgets without oversight, Coghill, the Senate majority leader, responded that "those days are going to go away."
That's in part, he said, because the state, with its $3.8 billion budget deficit, doesn't have the money to spend. Coghill also was stumped when asked to point to a legitimate public purpose for McGuire's weekend trips to Anchorage.
"The work product on how that impacted regulations — you've got me," he said.
Coghill was more emphatic, however, in his view that McGuire's advocacy on Arctic issues was worth the investment. That work took McGuire on her trips to Greenland and Paris.
The state spent $6,400 on McGuire's trip to Nuuk, Greenland's capital, in June. A document provided by a Senate spokeswoman said the visit was arranged by the Anchorage-based Institute of the North, an Arctic policy group.
Members of the institute's delegation met with Greenland's representatives to the Arctic Council, an eight-nation forum that promotes development and environmental protection in the region. The group discussed energy, infrastructure, and "cold climate issues," according to the document.
The Paris trip was for a December symposium called "Arctic Encounter," which coincided with the international global climate talks taking place in that city.
The symposium was organized by the French Polar Cluster — a new nonprofit group led by political analyst Mika Mered — and Kallander and Associates LLC, a consulting firm run by Rachel Kallander, who last month was named deputy manager of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's re-election campaign. (Murkowski recorded an "exclusive video speech" for the Paris symposium, according to its website.)
The symposium said it registered more than 200 government officials, businesses, reporters, think tanks, and explorers. There were sessions on infrastructure and energy; a debate on climate change and security called "Arctic Wars" that featured a former prime minister of Greenland; and a speech by Reggie Joule, the former mayor of Alaska's Northwest Arctic Borough.
Mered said in a phone interview from Paris that he'd set up meetings for McGuire with one of France's representatives to the Arctic Council, Olivier Guyonvarch, as well as an official with the French navy.
"It seemed like it was really valuable," Mered said. "It was really both promoting investment in Alaska, but also talking as a diplomat, about cooperation."
Coghill, the Senate majority leader, said it was a "reasonable question" whether McGuire's trip to Paris was justified. But he described the international advocacy done by McGuire and Herron as an effective "end-run" around federal officials who might give more weight to international Arctic players than to Alaskans.
"If they thought we were credible, then the State Department -- when we go meet with them -- thinks we're credible," Coghill said.
As evidence, he pointed to the State Department's decision to schedule the Arctic Council's major 2017 ministerial meeting in Fairbanks.