Alaska online checkbook to return as legislators push to make it permanent and better

Sen. Bill Wielechowski presents Senate Bill 25, creating a permanent online checkbook for state spending, during the Senate State Affairs Committee on Feb. 3, 2021.

With growing bipartisan support for legislation that would require the state to create a public database disclosing its spending, the Dunleavy administration conveniently announced that it will bring back the service that it shuttered nine months ago by the end of this week.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski’s Senate Bill 25 would require the state to publish and maintain an online database listing that details all spending, expenditures and revenues of state departments, the University of Alaska and other state agencies. After years of frustration with the cumbersome checkbook and general secrecy of the Dunleavy administration, the legislation has already garnered support of both Democrats and Republicans.

“The state as far as we can tell is the only state in the nation that does not have an operational checkbook. … Before that, the online checkbook we had was extremely slow to download, extremely slow to operate, not intuitive and it was not easily searchable,” Wielechowski told the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “We are currently the least transparent state in the United States.”

Several legislators praised the idea, including Republicans who complained about the state’s refusal to make public information related to state spending and the pandemic. Sen. Mike Shower, the Wasilla Republican who chairs the committee, suggested that they spell out as much as they can in the bill otherwise the administration would weasel its way around and not report everything.

“If there’s more specifics the committee or others would like to see, I think we should add them because nobody here is naive and if the bureaucracy decides it doesn’t want to answer those questions it will only go so far,” he said. “I would tend to lean more towards getting more into the weeds on the guidance as opposed to letting them vaguely do what they want because we won’t necessarily get what we want.”

A Dunleavy administration official told the committee during testimony on Tuesday that they planned to bring the checkbook back online by the end of the week, claiming they took it down originally because a problem was discovered and didn’t have the cash to fix it at the time. They estimate Wielechowski’s bill, which would expand the system and make it more user-friendly, would cost the state $400,000 and not be completed until October 2022, requiring outside contractors.

Wielechowski, whose proposal for a checkbook led to its creation by executive order under Gov. Sarah Palin, said he’s heard it all before and that there’s reason to be skeptical of the administration’s sudden desire to be transparent. He also questioned whether the cost and timeline were trumped up efforts by the administration to give the Legislature sticker shock.

“The state stopped upgrading this checkbook about three years ago, they took it down nine months ago. They did their covid dashboard in one week. If they put their minds to it, they can get it done,” he said. “I’m having a little bit of déjà vu here because when we did this original bill back in 2007-2008, we heard the exact same thing. The Department of Administration said, ‘We can’t do it, it’s too expensive, it’s going to take too long,’ and then they did the exact same thing. They came into the State Affairs hearing, this committee’s hearing, back in 2007-2008 and said, ‘It’s done, we did it, it’s amazing, it didn’t cost us anything.’ So, I take what they say with a lot of skepticism.”

Many senators seemed to agree that his concern was warranted.

Today, during the Senate Floor session several Republicans, including Senate President Peter Micciche, signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation. It currently has 11 co-sponsors, enough to guarantee its passage through the Senate.

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