The Legislature’s Legislative Budget and Audit Committee today approved an audit of the $290 million Alaska Cares Act Program, the federally funded state-run business relief program that disastrously stumbled out of the blocks at launch.
After months of uncertainty, mixed messages and more uncertainty, the Alaska Legislature wants answers about the program as the state prepares for a second round of money to go out. Rep. Chris Tuck, the chair of the committee, called it a tortured process that saw application requirements change several times, leaving some businesses out in the dark.
“We met at least three times on this issue trying to help the governor get it right. With that we do have more money that’s coming into the state of Alaska and make sure we’re getting it right. We want to make sure that businesses know that they’re being cared for, businesses know that they can have certainty and clarity because my office has been swamped with trying to walk people through their application process. … I think this is something that will help us get to better answers and get to a better process.”
One of the most egregious problems with the whole process was a limit that prevented any businesses that had received more than $5,000 in federal aid from applying for the state grants. At one point, the state suggested businesses return their federal aid in order to apply for the state grants.
Tuck said at least one business he worked with “received zero money after giving their money back to the federal government.”
The audit calls for the legislative auditors to do the following:
- Review the process used to procure contractors to help administer the program;
- Analyze the prioritization and review process, in order to ensure that all eligible businesses were fairly and equitably treated;
- Identify the names, locations, and specific amounts associated with each AK CARES grant award; and
- Address other issues of concern identified by the Legislative Auditor during the audit.
The only opposition to the measure was raised by Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof, who said she didn’t see the point in publicly naming all the recipients and how much they received through the program. She said a higher-level approach would make more sense for the Legislature.
“Having lists out of these thousands of businesses and entities that received the money and how much money they received is not a good use of our time in the near term, perhaps in the future,” she said. “I think we’re going to be opening a can of worms by doing that.”
Tuck stood by the plan, saying that the Legislature and the public need to know what happened with the money and whether the process was fair as they move ahead with a second round of the program.
“The federal government already has that information available for their grants, the question is if the federal government is able to release that information then why are we having such a difficult time trying to get that information from the state?” he said. “I think that transparency is important and if it does open a can of worms, I think we need to find out what worms are in that can.”
The audit was approved unanimously and elevated to a top priority for the Legislature’s auditors.