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“Why I Didn't Go On Any Legislative Trips This Summer” Newsletter
I'm proud that I've been frugal with your money. I've run the lowest cost office in the Legislature for many years, and in other years I've barely missed being the lowest cost office to an even cheaper legislator. Though in fairness, office costs include travel to Juneau for the Legislative Session, and Legislators from parts of rural Alaska have to ship their personal belongings to Juneau every year. They can't avoid having much higher travel costs than someone who lives in Anchorage.
I've tried to save costs running my office. I wasn't one of the Anchorage area legislators who accepted $250/day in per diem for the Special Session in Anchorage this spring. I, and most Anchorage area legislators (all Anchorage-area Democrats, and many Anchorage area Republicans) didn't think it was right to charge you per diem, in the face of a fiscal crisis, when we had no extra rent to pay for in our own home town. We had some extra expenses, and just paid for them.
When the Legislature made office accounts, which should only be spent on office expenses, "income", I sent the state back all the funds that I didn't use for office expenses. The law that year allowed legislators to keep any office account money they didn't spend on office expenses, and I and Rep. Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) called for a change to that policy, which has since occurred. Leftover office funds now revert back to the state at the end of the year.
That brings me to this week's news.
I've never been a big conference guy, either as a legislator or when I worked in the private sector. It's why you didn't see my name in the press for attending a summer Lower 48 Legislative Conference. I do applaud those like Rep. Scott Kawasaki who avoided charging the state for a $400/night hotel by finding free places for his staff to stay, and by using his annual office account allotment, rather seeking additional state funds, to pay for his lower-cost hotel. Many legislators did something similar, and many avoided expensive hotels.
So, just in case you wondered from this week's press - I didn't go to any of this summer's legislative conferences. That's not to say I'd vilify those who do go to conferences. Some people learn better in person, listening to speakers, than by reading. There is value in learning in the way that suits you best. I read on national model legislation, and read on Alaska policy issues. I call experts when I need them. I ask the Legislative Legal and Legislative Research departments for advice. And Legislators have the right to ask for information on how other states address issues from the staff at the National Conference on State Legislators. I do that.
I also believe the smarter course in the future would be to send fewer legislators to Lower 48 conferences, relying on those legislators to share what they learned. Perhaps in this time for budget deficits there should be a moratorium on seeking state reimbursement for conferences, unless perhaps there is one of unusual importance.
Since being elected in 2002 I've traveled out of state just twice as a legislator, and only once at state cost. For that conference, I shared a hotel room with other legislators to keep state costs down.
The first trip, early in my career, was paid for by a non-profit children's advocacy group. It was paid for by the Casey Family Foundation, which focuses on the improvement of lives for America's foster youth. I have since stayed in contact with experts without Outside travel.
And six years ago, I went on my only Legislative trip - the annual legislative trip to Washington, D.C.called "Energy Conference. I mostly went because we were working on a gas pipeline to the Lower 48 in 2009 (aren't we always working on a gasline????!). I was invited with Senators French and Wielechowski to the White House to present our case for federal cooperation on that project. We worked with the Governor's Administration on an appropriate message, and brought it with us. I've never been back to that conference since, though lobbying on Alaska issues in Washington, D.C. can have value at times, and sending a small delegation to the Capitol when necessary makes sense. Unfortunately, a few years later the Lower 48 price for natural gas tanked, even to the surprise of the oil and gas industry. This made the sale of Alaska natural gas in the Lower 48 uneconomical. It's why we are now looking to Asian markets now. The price for natural gas in Asia is much higher.
I don't criticize those who learn best in person at a conference, and applaud those who find ways to avoid significant costs to the state when attending conferences. But I, and a growing number of my peers, feel that until we solve the state's budget problems, sending 40 people to a Lower 48 conference isn't the best use of state money.
As always, call if we can help or if you'd like to share your thoughts.