ANCHORAGE — Since Gov. Sarah Palin took office nearly two years ago, the state of Alaska has routinely bought commercial airline tickets for her daughters when they travel with her, a practice that raises questions about the governor's claim to being a fiscal conservative.
Travel records from the governor's office show that the state has spent at least $31,800 on dozens of airline tickets for the family, and more for meals and hotels.
Records show the family has traveled with Palin for events such as the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks last fall and to shoot official first family photos in Juneau, to draw raffle tickets at an event in Anchorage and to tour a teen center spearheaded by the Juneau Christian Center.
There's no specific state law or rule that says the state pays for family members to travel to events with the governor, but it's become tradition, according to Linda Perez, director of administrative services for the governor. The governor's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said paying the family's travel expenses is appropriate because people expect Palin to bring her husband and children along.
"There is an expectation of the first family to participate in activities across the state," she said.
But the issue of who should pay the family's travel expenses adds to questions about Palin's spending practices that were raised this week by revelations in the Washington Post that Palin also charged the state for meals while she was staying at her home in Wasilla, away from her official state duty station of Juneau, the capital.
Leighow said there was nothing wrong with Palin claiming state money while she was staying in her own home. "She's entitled to it," Leighow said.
Leighow noted that Palin's travel expenses last year — $114,000 — were far less than those submitted the previous year by Gov. Frank Murkowski — the Republican Palin beat in the primary to cement her reputation as a reformer willing to take on members of her own party. Murkowski's travel expenses for 2006 totaled $516,000.
But the Democrat who preceded Murkowski in office, Tony Knowles, questioned both the state's paying for Palin's children's travel and for Palin's collecting the state per diem while staying in her Wasilla home.
"When you're living at home, you don't pay yourself for living at home," Knowles said in an interview Tuesday. "And if you use a technicality to get around that rule so you can get paid for it, it's not right."
Knowles said in an interview last week that when he was governor his children were allowed to fly on state-owned King Air propeller planes, but that the state did not buy them commercial airline tickets.
"All of her travel-related activities have been appropriately documented, are completely transparent and entirely legal," said Ben Porritt, spokesman for Palin's vice presidential campaign.
Since Palin was named the Republican Party's vice-presidential candidate, the campaign of Sen. John McCain has promoted her as a fierce budget watchdog eager to shave frivolous government spending. At campiagn stops, Palin has repeatedly touted her record for selling the state's jet and laying off the chef at the governor's mansion in Juneau. Her presence on the campaign trail has energized the party's evangelical Christian base behind the McCain candidacy.
But her claims to middle-class frugality as the state's governor are undercut by the revelations about her travel expenses. The Post reported that she's billed the state thousands of dollars for meal money while spending more than 300 nights at her Wasilla home during her first 19 months in office.
The Palins split time between Juneau, the state's capital, and Wasilla, outside of Anchorage, with the governor often working in Juneau during the legislative session and in Anchorage for much of the rest of the year.
The state considers Juneau to be the governor's home base. That creates a scenario where Palin is considered to be "traveling" while living in her own house.
At least one member of Palin's cabinet also ate on the state's dime while staying in his hometown on multi-day trips during 2007, according to Division of Finance records. Palin doesn't require her cabinet members to live in Juneau, and most don't.
Knowles, who served as governor from 1994 to 2002, moved his family to Juneau and leased out his Anchorage home. When in Anchorage on official business, Knowles said he stayed at the Hilton hotel. He collected a meal per diem unless he was attending events at which meals were provided, he said.
Murkowski, who served from 2002 to 2006, lived in the governor's mansion in Juneau. The state rented an Anchorage apartment for him for business in the city, and he collected a per diem while staying there, Perez said.
Palin's travel expenses first drew attention during the summer when her daughter Piper joined Palin on a well-publicized trip to Barrow, in Alaska's far north. Critics wondered then who had paid Piper's travel expenses.
Travel records requested by the Anchorage Daily News show that the state did. The reports, which the governor and other state employees submit to get reimbursed for meals and lodging while on the road, also document thousands of dollars in per diem claims while Palin stayed in her own home.
For example, the reports show that in mid-June of 2007, Palin arrived in Anchorage on the state's King Air propeller plane for the beginning of a long stay away from the capital. On her agenda: a special legislative session on senior aid, signing the state budget and a baseball game between the Mat-Su Miners and Alaska Goldpanners.
During the same trip, Palin performed the coin toss at an Alaska Wild football game one day and vetoed $231 million for projects in the state construction budget the next.
For the two weeks she worked in Anchorage while living at home, she charged the state a total of about $800 in meal money, according to the travel records.
Leighow said the governor saves money when she's at home — it's less expensive than staffing and stocking the governor's mansion in Juneau.
Leighow also defended the governor's commercial air travel, noting that Palin flies coach and that Todd Palin's state-paid travel expenses so far total only $14,000, compared to $124,000 for Nancy Murkowski during Murkowski's four years in office.
Leighow also said that Palin has had to travel by commercial air with her children because the state's King Air aircraft often has been unavailable. Lately, when the King Air isn't down for maintenance, it's being painted or fitted with new electronics, she said.
Among the trips documented by the travel records where Palin took along her children:
-- July 7-15, 2008: Palin daughters Piper and Bristol flew to Philadelphia with the governor for a National Governors Association meeting. The state lists the purpose of the girls' trip as participating in "governor's youth programs and family activities." The airfare and lodging cost $2,500.
-- April 3-6, 2008: Piper joined the governor in the Anchorage area because -- according to state travel records authorizing the trip -- the first family was to read to students a Wasilla Christian school. The round trip flight from Juneau cost $550.
-- October 7-11, 2007: Palin's oldest daughter, Bristol, flew with the governor to New York City at a cost of $1,390 because she was "invited to attend Newsweek's Third Annual Women and Leadership Conference with the governor," Palin's office says. They stayed in a $707-a-night hotel for four nights.
Piper, who is 7, flew with Palin the most often, followed by Todd Palin and the governor's two older daughters.
The couple's oldest son, 19-year-old Track, enlisted in the Army last September and isn't listed on any of the travel forms. Neither is the governor's youngest, Trig, who was born in April and flies for free.
The family and Palin's staff also often flew on the King Air propeller plane, which is owned by the Department of Public Safety, according to the records.
The governor's office pays a flat rate -- which was about $900 an hour as of this spring -- when using the state plane, Perez wrote in an e-mail. When the jet was still in use, it cost roughly twice as much as the King Air, according to the Department of Public Safety.
One set of travel expense the state will not pick up are those generated by Palin since she's been on the campaign trail. The trip isn't considered state business, and Palin won't be able to collect a per diem or reimburse lodging costs since she's been gone, Perez said.
Palin chief of staff Mike Nizich, Anchorage office director Kris Perry, communications director Bill McAllister, and Bob Cockrell, one of Palin's security special agents, all joined the governor at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
The state plans to pay only the travel expenses for McAllister and Cockrell, according to the governor's office.