“The answer to our state’s fiscal challenge will come from disciplining state spending,” Frank Murkowski once said on the campaign trail.
It quote also sounds like House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, lecturing the rest of us about Alaska’s fiscal crisis. But leadership isn’t founded on populist rhetoric. It needs to be modeled by personal action, and by spending $400 for a hotel room in Seattle, Chenault failed that test just like the former governor quoted above.
It was on the campaign trail in 2002 that then-U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski made his promise to rein in state spending if elected governor. Three years later he wanted to spend $2.7 million for a jet to be used by his office and the Department of Public Safety. The Legislature rejected his request for funds, but instead of respecting them, Murkowski acted like a childish prince and bought the jet with money from a special account. He then proceeded to take questionable trips that would have been a lot less expensive had he flown on commercial airlines.
The jet became the symbol of Murkowski’s “first to worst” story. He was elected governor with the highest winning percentage in state history, and he departed after an embarrassing reelection bid where he received only 19 percent of the vote in the GOP primary.
In terms of wasteful spending, Chenault’s decision isn’t remotely comparable to Murkowski’s. And he wasn’t the worst offender of the 42 legislators and staffers who attended the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in August. But as the top lawmaker in the House of Representatives, he should be modeling the fiscal restraint he’s preaching to everyone else in state government.
Last February, in response to the state’s budget problems, Chenault imposed restrictions on legislative travel. It didn’t apply to state employees, but it was meant to be an example of prudence for them to follow. Spending $400 a night on a hotel room for himself undermines that message, especially when at least eight other lawmakers found accommodations for less than half that amount.
Chenault’s policy was also aimed at increasing legislative productivity. “We’re going to keep working,” he said when explaining that legislators were leaving Juneau too often to meet with constituents in their districts.
The speaker then proceeded to waste government time on House Bill 155, a bill he sponsored that demands Congress relinquish ownership of the vast majority of federal lands in Alaska. He should have kept his caucus focused on the budget instead of pushing legislation deemed unconstitutional by a state legislative lawyer. If he had, they might have been able to avoid the special session that cost the state almost $900,000.
Then, look at what he did this summer after Gov. Bill Walker decided to expand Medicaid. Once more he ignored the opinion of state attorneys and led the charge to sue the governor. What immediately followed was approval to spend $450,000 of state funds for outside legal help.
Chennault is the longest-serving House speaker in Alaskan history, but his apparent blindness to these hypocrisies is a sign he’s been in office too long. And like Murkowski, who spent 22 years in the U.S. Senate before running for governor, he’s been reelected by lopsided margins more than a few times. His power and popularity has turned him into an aristocrat.
Not all career public servants become that detached from reality. One way to avoid it is to try to live like the common people.
Before being the Democratic nominee for President in 1988, Michael Dukakis served three terms as governor of Massachusetts, during which he rode mass transit to the state capitol instead of being chauffeured in state-provided limousines. And Vice President Joe Biden has a history of traveling from his Delaware home to Washington D.C. on a commuter train.
Then there’s the true modesty of Pope Francis. While the head archbishop in Argentina, he lived in a small apartment in downtown Buenos Aires rather than the Archbishop’s Palace. And now in Rome he’s chosen to live in a two-room guesthouse within the Vatican instead of the spacious 10-room papal apartment.
Such choices help sustain the sense of humility needed to truly understand the problems and dreams people encounter in everyday life. But Chennault has lost that. And by forgetting he’s still one of us, he’s become an example of why we need to limit the terms of our legislators and members of Congress.