Senate President Defends Travel Expenses

Reports Monday of recent travel expenditures by legislators indicate that this current year is on track right now to costing about the same as most previous years’ travel – with one exception.

Annual reports from the Legislative Affairs Agency show total reimbursed travel expenses peaked in fiscal year 2009 at $1,010,000. That was the first year that legislative sessions were shortened to 90 days, leaving more time for travel.  It was also the year that 26 lawmakers traveled to Washington DC during that 90-day session to attend meetings of the Energy Council – a national Petroleum-oriented group.  That fiscal year began in 2008, and also included a special session dealing with the legislature’s final action on the state-sponsored gas pipeline project and other energy issues.

Last year, that expense dropped by a fourth — to $764,000.

Most travel requests and expenditures are approved by the House and Senate Presiding officers – only the Finance Committees approve their own expenses. Senate President Gary Stevens says there is value in the meetings and sessions members attend. And it’s up to them to explain their activities.

“It’s up to the legislator to say this is what I want to do and I’m willing to go to my constituents and say ‘Okay I went to Hawaii, yes I did, and it was of value and this is why I went and this is what I learned.’  It’s up to each of us to go back to the people who elect us and say,  and be transparent and be responsible for what we’ve done,” Stevens said.

Stevens says there is value in the organizations that sponsor the national meetings – and there is knowledge in other meetings. About 10 members of the House and Senate will join another 30-or-so Alaskans on a trip to Norway at the end of this month.   He says most legislators are not experienced in oil and gas production and taxation. And he sees that trip as a chance to learn first-hand from a lot of people who have made Norway a success.

“I think there’s a lot to learn, and I think there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being a legislator and a Senator.  You know, economics and the oil industry are not in my background. Yet the people I represent want me to know what’s going on and watch out for their interest and the interest of the state.  It’s important that all of us have some understanding of that industry and that’s why the Norway trip – I’m really glad it’s turning out this way.  I think it’s going to be of value,” Stevens said.

Stevens says as long as expenses don’t get out of control – and members don’t request travel to too many meetings – he is prepared to continue approving their travel requests.

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