Alaska faces a deficit crisis. But its platform for publicly tracking the state budget is broken.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks about the state's COVID-19 response from the Atwood Building in Anchorage on March 23, 2020.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks about the state’s COVID-19 response on March 23, 2020, from the Atwood Building in Anchorage. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Alaska Governor’s Office)

As Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is dealing with a huge budget deficit and a big windfall of federal coronavirus relief money, it has no timeline for fixing the broken portal that Alaskans can use to examine how state cash is spent.

The Sarah Palin-era “Checkbook Online” system has been broken for a month, and people at the state agency charged with maintaining it — the Department of Administration — say the department lacks the cash to fix the portal and is busy with financial software upgrades and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Asked about the status of the Checkbook, a special assistant at the department, Kelly Hanke, responded with a one-page letter saying the system has been “removed from the web, until further notice,” and needs to be re-evaluated.

“It has become apparent that there is a need for internal controls and quality assurance measures to be put in place, as well as an auditing peer review process, before we can put it back online,” Hanke wrote.

She added that “checks and balances” are missing and said that there may be “errors in the coding” that can’t be fixed until the software upgrade is finished.

“At that time, we will then review the options for a Checkbook Online program,” Hanke wrote. “We do not have an expected date set for the online checkbook to be reinstated, nor do we have funding authority to properly address this item.”

The Checkbook system, launched by Palin’s administration in 2008, included records of state agencies’ payments to state contractors and grant recipients. It was updated monthly; watchdogs and reporters regularly reviewed the postings, and occasionally used them to point out payments to politically-connected recipients.

In mid-April, the Department of Administration stopped updating the platform and yanked nearly a year’s worth of state spending data off the internet, saying the data was being reviewed.

It wasn’t the first time the Checkbook system had gone down: Problems with another financial software upgrade took it offline for about six months in 2015, under former Gov. Bill Walker.

There’s currently no law that requires Dunleavy’s administration to maintain the system, though Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski has proposed legislation to do that.

Senate Bill 180 would expand the Checkbook system to make sure it includes data from state authorities and corporations, not just agencies. The legislation is endorsed by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, as well as by the more liberal-leaning Alaska Public Interest Research Group.

The Senate State Affairs Committee, chaired by Anchorage Republican Josh Revak, held a hearing on the bill in March, but it didn’t advance the legislation. Revak, in a phone interview Thursday, said he likes the bill and that lawmakers simply ran out of time to move legislation when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Wielechowski, in a phone interview, said he wasn’t convinced by the Dunleavy administration’s explanation for why the Checkbook system was taken offline.

“We’ve had this system in place for 13 years,” he said. “And it just seems really odd that all of a sudden, it’s gone.”

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