New signage at the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, Jan 15, 2020, reminds visitors of health mitigation strategies. Committees from the previous legislature had their final meetings Monday as the new session starts Tuesday. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

New signage at the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, Jan 15, 2020, reminds visitors of health mitigation strategies. Committees from the previous legislature had their final meetings Monday as the new session starts Tuesday. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

State will audit CARES Act funding

Legislative committee approved audit of small business grants

Lawmakers approved an audit of federal COVID-19 relief money allocated through the state’s small business grant program and will include an audit of Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority board members.

In one of the last meetings of members of Alaska’s 31st Legislature, the bicameral Legislative Budget and Audit Committee met Tuesday morning to finish leftover business from the previous session.

Among the issues tackled by the committee was the approval of revised program legislative requests, or RPLs. Those requests allow the governor to appropriate funds while the Legislature is not in session. Because the Legislature, which by law controls appropriations, ended its session early due to the pandemic, Gov. Mike Dunleavy attempted to use the RPLs to distribute CARES Act funding without bringing the Legislature back into session.

The governor’s initial efforts were met with a lawsuit that brought lawmakers back to Juneau for a week in May.

The audit was proposed by LBA Committee co-chair Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, who said at the meeting the rollout process for the state’s AK CARES small business grant program had been “tortured.”

“I know there’s interest from (lawmakers) to look at community assistance programs and whether government entities underneath the state had spent the money wisely,” Tuck said.

Legislature to convene amid budget, virus concerns

Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, pushed back against a detailed audit of individual amounts to specific businesses and suggested instead looking at how much money was spent in specific areas. Lawmakers could use that information to help fill in gaps in funding once additional aid money from the federal government arrives, she said.

There was concern that some of the CARES Act funding might not have gone to those most in need, said Ken Alper, legislative aide to Tuck, and because the funds received were public, information about how much was received and by which entities should be public information. Alper said the audit should look at who the recipients were and the process by which they were selected. How AIDEA managed the review and application process should be audited as well, Alper said.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, agreed.

“The integrity of AIDEA and of our board demand that question be asked and answered,” Hoffman said.

Legislative auditor Kris Kurtis told the committee that a preliminary audit could be prepared by late April or early May.

Another round of federal aid is expected soon, but neither chamber of the Legislature has yet organized a majority to elect leaders and give committee assignments. Senate President Cathy Giessel was in Juneau for the meeting, even though her term expired at midnight Monday.

Legislative librarian Jennifer Fletcher told the Associated Press Monday it would be unprecedented for both chambers of the Legislature to begin the session without some level of organization. Several state House Republicans who caucused with Democrats and independents in the last session lost their primaries to party challengers, and the Alaska House of Representatives is split among 21 Republicans, 15 Democrats and four independents.

However, one Republican, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, has already said she will again caucus with the previous House majority which had Dillingham independent Bryce Edgmon as Speaker of the House.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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