Alaska opens checkbook to public

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Alaskans who want to make sure their state government is spending their money wisely can now rummage through the state's checkbook, and see what they can find.

The new Online Checkbook feature in the state's Web site lets the public look through listings of all the bills paid and grants awarded by the state government in the last six months.

"It's a very, very good tool for Alaskans to see where their money is going," said Gov. Sarah Palin at a press conference Monday.

It's a new government program that both ends of the political spectrum agree is needed. National anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and liberal Ralph Nader both support the plans to improve transparency in state government. Norquist testified before a legislative committee supporting the effort, as did Steve Cleary of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.

Visitors to the Online Checkbook site can look up all the checks and payments made by the state so far this fiscal year, with some notable exceptions. Public employee salary information, while legally public, is not on the site. Nor are payments of less than $1,000.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, praised the effort Monday.

"I think there are going to be times when elected officials would rather not have this online, but it holds us accountable," he said.

Among those interested in the Online Checkbook are likely to be businesses, which may want to see how much the state is paying their competitors, he said. Those businesses may even underbid their competitors the next time around, and save the state some money.

Wielechowski said other states that have made similar efforts have gotten millions of hits on their Web sites. He brought the idea for a bill requiring the Online Checkbook to the Palin administration and got a positive response.

"They came back to us and said, 'You don't need the bill. We'll just go ahead and do it ourselves,'" he said.

Wielechowski said he's still planning to go ahead with his bill, however, and said elected officials should make the call - and take the heat - about what should and should not go online.

Requiring the state to post the information online ensures that it will remain there, even when administrations change, he said.

"If the Legislature has a say, it gives it permanence," he said. "Look at how many things Palin has reversed that (former Gov. Frank) Murkowski did."

Wielechowski said Department of Administration staff who put the information online exceeded expectations, but said the early version needs more work.

"It's a good start, but it's a little rough," he said. He said he'd like to see aggregated data and more specificity. In some cases, it is difficult to tell what a bill is for.

"We'll continue to refine the tool and respond to suggestions for improvement," said Annette Kreitzer, commissioner of the Department of Administration.

Information from the site can be downloaded in both spreadsheet and PDF formats, with additional lookup and analysis options under consideration, state officials say.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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