Travel report shows big spending still by state officials

Snow falls in front of the Alaska Capitol in Downtown Juneau in March 2017

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Once again, the state’s travel reports show that Sen. Donny Olson is the Legislature’s biggest spender, with nearly $50,000 in travel and relocation charges in the past year.

But the Legislature’s spending, led by rural legislators and presiding officers, is nothing compared to the executive branch. There, according to the travel reports, the president of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., Keith Meyer, racked up more than $138,500 in travel expenses as he tried to sell gas and investments in the potential gas line in Asia.

Travel reports for the Alaska legislature and the administration of Gov. Bill Walker were released Wednesday afternoon just before the close of business. The Legislature’s report is posted on line on its publications page, while the administration’s executive report is on the Department of Administration’s website.

Olson, D-Golovin, has regularly been at the top of legislative spending for travel, but his claims in the 2017 report were nearly $7,000 higher than in the 2016 report.

Olson’s staff said he was too busy Thursday for an interview, but in a prepared statement said high costs should be expected for a legislator representing a remote district.

“I serve the largest state senate district in the nation,” Olson said. “It is reasonable, being the largest legislative family with six children, two of which are newborns, my wife and I would have higher relocation costs than any other Legislator.”

Olson said that encouraging people to run for office means the state should “continue to show support for families” by paying for their travel, though he also said he was looking for efficiencies.

A member of the administration appears to have found a way to increase travel efficiency. Leslie Ridle, the deputy commissioner of administration for most of 2017, and now the department’s full commissioner, made 13 trips to Anchorage during the year in which she didn’t charge the state for lodging or expenses. The governor’s spokesman, Austin Baird, said Ridle used to live in Anchorage and kept a room in her house “to save the state money” when she travels from her headquarters in Juneau.

Travel among commissioners varied widely, from $13,568 for Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas to $47,282 for Transportation Commissioner Mark Luiken. The second highest travel bill was $40,296 for Dean Williams, the Commissioner of Corrections.

Walker himself claimed $67,056 in travel expenses, while Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott claimed $53,213.

In January 2016, Walker’s chief of staff ordered restrictions on all state employees that banned most travel for “professional development or trade association conferences” and stopped a relatively common practice of sending several employees to the same place for the same reason. But the restrictions didn’t ban travel that was “mission critical” to the agency.

In addition to Keith Meyer’s spending at the gas line corporation, other state-chartered corporations also had big travel expenses. Craig Campbell, the top executive at the Alaska Aerospace Corp., had $57,881 in travel. Alexa Tonkovich, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, had $59,204 in travel expenses, including to the agency’s office in Seattle.

President James Johnsen of the Univeristy of Alaska spent $64,167 on travel in 2017, the report shows.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat from Dillingham, said that even though some legislators were spending more in 2017, the entire Legislature had slowed its travel.

“We’ve been discouraging travel outside the state, and I think that’s shown in the overall numbers,” Edgmon said in an interview Thursday. Total spending was the lowest it has been in 14 years, he added.

Edgmon himself is among the top five spenders — and the only member of the House in the top five.

The second most expensive legislator for travel and relocation costs was Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, at $38,674, while in third place was Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, at $30,790. Sen. Pete Kelly, the Senate President and a Fairbanks Republican, spent $18,648 as the only Railbelt legislator in the top-five list.

“It should come as no surprise that the President of the Senate is required to travel more than the average lawmaker as one of the two presiding officers in the Alaska Legislature,” Kelly's spokesman, Daniel McDonald, said in a prepared statement. McDonald also said some blame should be on the governor for the three special sessions he called.

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