Who is benefitting from lawmakers' excursions?
It’s easy enough to identify a $900 a night suite in Waikiki on the public’s dime as outrageous. And we’re baffled as to why members of our Legislature would seem to consider themselves to be entitled to such perks. It’s still philosophically a citizen legislature, right?
Members of the Legislature typically spend some time traveling as part of the duties of their office, and certainly if they’re on state business, they should be reimbursed by the state for those expenses. Travel, they say, to conferences and forums allows them to promote Alaska and become better informed on issues to better serve their constituents.
But we wondering, in this day and age of information and communications technology, are we the people getting what we pay for?
We have serious doubts.
According to the Legislative Affairs Agency, lawmakers tallied $710,300 in state-reimbursed travel expenses in 2010. That number doesn’t include relocation expenses for lawmakers to move to Juneau for the legislative session.
Lawmakers have made some high profile trips this year, including an excursion to an energy conference that shut down the Legislature for a week midsession. According to reports, a quarter of the Legislature attended the conference in Hawaii — most of them submitted expenses far less than the $5,544 for six nights at a luxury resort Sen. Bert Stedman submitted — and another group of 10 was to depart this weekend for a “Norway policy tour.”
Frankly, all that travel did not help the Legislature during this past session, in which it did not complete the most basic of its responsibilities, approving an operating budget, during the 90 days allotted to it. And lawmakers did little else to address other issues, things they claim to be learning about during these conferences.
The fact is that many of these presentations lawmakers claim to find beneficial could be attended via teleconference or videoconference. Indeed, we’ve become proficient with that technology here, as most constituents can only interact with their elected officials via the Legislative Information Office during the session. For conferences and forums where in-person attendance would be truly beneficial, perhaps two or three lawmakers can go and report what they’ve learned back to their colleagues. The last thing an elected official should want do is shut down the Legislature to attend a forum.
Most of all, lawmakers should hold themselves accountable for expenses paid for with public funds. We want to see a measurable benefit from money spent on travel — just as we would for money spent on any other government-funded endeavor.
For lawmakers, that means getting things done during a 90-day session in Juneau, and those are results we simply aren’t seeing.
In short: Lawmakers who claim that travel to conferences using public money benefits their constituents need to prove it with an efficient and effective legislative session.