A bill that would empower the Legislature to set the salary of the State Auditor has been co-introduced by House Speaker Scott Saiki and Democratic Majority Leader Della Au Belatti in what may be another sign that State Auditor Les Kondo has fallen from favor.

Under current law the auditor’s pay is equal to the salary of the director of the state Department of Health, which is set at $154,812. By law the auditor’s salary cannot be changed during the auditor’s eight-year term of office.

However, House Bill 354 would allow the Legislature to set the salary of the auditor.

House Speaker Scott Saiki during floor session2.
House Speaker Scott Saiki during a floor session in 2019. Saiki has raised concerns about audits that are late, and “unnecessary litigation.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kondo said in an interview he has not discussed the bill with any lawmakers, and does not know why Saiki and Belatti want to make the change. He said the measure is “very alarming.”

“In addition to the fact that it’s affecting my livelihood, my salary that feeds my family and helps pay for the roof over my head, I think the bigger concern is that this office is in the Constitution,” Kondo said. “It was established to be an independent, objective office, not a political office.

“That’s the reason why the auditor has a term of eight years. It wasn’t supposed to be subject to politics or the whim of different politicians, and this bill seems to me to be an attempt to unduly inject politics and political influence into this office,” he said.

Saiki did not respond to a request for comment, but he has already announced plans to establish a panel to review the auditor’s office, citing concerns about missed deadlines and “unnecessary litigation.”

The group that will assess the auditor’s office will include former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and former state Office of Finance Director Wes Machida. It will be led by former Honolulu City Auditor Edwin Young.

Sandy Ma 

Saiki has also proposed cutting the budget for the state auditor by more than 50%, a move Kondo said would “basically gut the office.”

Belatti declined comment on the bill, but Common Cause Executive Director Sandy Ma described the salary and budget cutting measures as “troubling.”

“As an organization that is focused on good government, transparency and accountability, we would like to see the auditors have some measure of leeway in their job functions,” Ma said. “To have these measures introduced just seems kind of suspicious at this point in time.”

Ma said it is important that the auditor be free to review state offices and programs “without undue influence. To have that kind of influence on an auditor is not good for the auditor’s position, clearly.”

Republican state Rep. Gene Ward said in a written statement that “HB 354 is the ‘power of the purse’ in perfect punitive motion.”

“Disapproval of a person or policy is attacked by the Legislature via a department’s budget or the Director’s salary. HB 354 adds insult to injury after the Auditor’s Budget has already been cut by 50%,” Ward said in his statement. “The auditor is our watchdog in this one-party state and saves us a lot of money and inefficiencies.”

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