Legislators are still searching for answers on how exactly state agencies could best use millions of dollars in federal relief funds to combat the coronavirus.

A panel of senators hoped to get some of those details Thursday, but they left a two-hour hearing with more questions than answers. The Senate Ways and Means Committee ran out of time and only made it through three of the six state agencies requesting use of some $862 million of federal funds through Senate Bill 75.

The hearing — at which the state budget director said he hadn’t seen the budget bill — highlighted much of the Legislature’s frustrations with Gov. David Ige’s administration in the past few months: a seeming lack of cohesion between state departments, slow movement on initiatives to control the pandemic, and unclear recovery plans.

“I think the hearing only led to more concerns and more questions,” Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz told reporters Thursday afternoon. 

The Senate Ways and Means Committee left a budget hearing with more questions than answers. Screenshot: Olelo/2020

Dela Cruz and House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke plan to follow up with the departments, but they’re short on time. Luke’s committee is expected to vote on SB 75 Friday before sending the bill to the full 51-member House for a series of key votes sometime next week.

She said that based on hearings the House held Tuesday in addition to the Senate hearings, her committee should still have enough information to pass SB 75. Luke is looking to make changes to the bill to make sure funding requests from the departments don’t overlap.

“We feel it is sufficient enough for us to proceed,” Luke told reporters, adding that lawmakers want to expedite the bill in order to get about $139 million to neighbor island counties that received no federal relief funds.

Dela Cruz said his colleagues are still asking questions of the administration and hope to get responses by tomorrow.

Much of those concerns involved the state Department of Budget and Finance. Budget Director Craig Hirai told lawmakers he isn’t aware of what’s in the budget bill the Legislature has been working on. 

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki pressed Hirai and the other budget officials on how they’re helping to allocate $862 million in federal relief funds and making sure departments aren’t trying to chase the same pots of money.

Hirai said that while the department tracks that, his staff isn’t directly involved in the allocation. He also said earlier in the hearing that he hasn’t reviewed the budget requests in SB 75, which include more than $300 million in asks from various departments.

For example, Neil Miyahara, another budget administrator, told the senators he was unaware of payroll requests coming from Alan Oshima, who Ige tapped to lead the state’s economic recovery efforts.

Budget documents show Oshima’s new state office is requesting about $530,000 in payroll in 2021, $120,000 of which will go to paying Oshima, who is semi-retired from a top executive position at Hawaiian Electric.

“If they don’t tell us, there’s not much we can do,” Miyahara told the senators.

Senator Sharon Moriwaki listens to tesimony in a housing hearing at the Capitol.
Sen. Sharon Moriwaki pressed budget officials for details on how the state is overseeing federal funds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Oshima talked about the request in front of House lawmakers in a hearing Tuesday.

He also found himself on the hot seat Thursday over how he intends to spend $10 million in federal funds. Much of that request, about $9 million, is going toward consulting services, while the remainder goes to payroll for Oshima and several staffers starting in January.

Oshima previously told lawmakers he believes he will stay in his position for at least a couple of years.

Part of that $9 million is slated for a contract with Boston Consulting Group, a mainland firm helping Oshima’s office with recovery planning. There will be other consultants contracted too, Oshima said, but those contracts haven’t been executed yet.

That the state plans to spend any money on consultants troubled Sen. Glenn Wakai, who suggested those functions should be accomplished by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

“We have a government entity whose mission and existence is what you’ll spend $9 million on,” Wakai told Oshima. “This should be a DBEDT driven effort.”

Dela Cruz asked why, if Oshima is leading recovery efforts, there aren’t more requests from the state to boost job diversification after the pandemic. He asked Oshima what decision-making authority he actually has.

“I have none,” Oshima responded. “I am the navigator. I am not the commander. I am not the coordinator. I am trying to connect the processes to lead to a result with a plan.”

The public is expected to get a glimpse of parts of that plan Friday. It’s expected to be a color-coded chart that shows the state’s level of risk for COVID-19 and what actions need to be taken at each level.

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