In a major policy speech on Tuesday, Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki called for several changes to state government, including an effort to consolidate watchdog agencies.

In what amounted to an Opening Day speech, which Saiki didn’t give this year, the House leader called for both unity and leadership, saying elected officials should fight for principles but be prepared to compromise.

“I would like to think that this is what the public expects of us,” he said. “The public wants us to rise above conflicts — and just get things done.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki gives a short speech intended for opening day of the legislature.
House Speaker Scott Saiki laid out proposals for accountability, land and tourism in a speech on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Saiki endorsed a bill authored by House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, which would group together the state’s watchdog agencies: the Office of the Auditor, Office of the Ombudsman, Office of Information Practices, Hawaii State Ethics Commission, and Campaign Spending Commission.

The new Office of Public Accountability would reduce costs and duplicative efforts, Saiki said. The auditors would still be appointed to an eight-year term and the ombudsman for six years, the bill says. And their salaries couldn’t be cut while they were in office.

Robin Matsunaga, the Hawaii State Ombudsman, said much would depend on the nature of the “oversight and administrative responsibility” that the new office would assume over other agencies.

“On its face, it looks like the bill is trying to create an umbrella for all of the watchdog groups. But I don’t understand functionally how that would work,” said Matsunaga, who is in charge of investigating complaints made by the public against government officials and agencies.

Specifically, he said, it could be problematic if the director of the new agency has the power to go through confidential information gathered by the watchdog agencies. That might undermine the integrity of what the watchdogs do, he said.

“That’s one of the questions I would have,” he said.

Representative Della Au Belatti gives a short speech during floor session.
Rep. Della Au Belatti gives a short speech during a floor session on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Saiki also discussed policies focused on economic development in the speech.

For instance, Saiki highlighted a measure, almost certain to spark controversy, that would consolidate the state Land Use Commission under an Office of Planning and Sustainable Development “in an effort to place all key decision-making and regulatory responsibility surrounding land use planning and permitting under one structure.”

Saiki also pointed to tourism, calling to balance a safe, incremental reopening of tourism with a bill Rep. Nicole Lowen has introduced that would put a “green fee” or tax on hotels to pay for conservation efforts to offset the impact of tourism.

“Representative Lowen is working to have visitors pay their fair share since they also use our natural and environmental resources,” Saiki said.

Mufi Hannemann, a former Honolulu Mayor who now runs the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, commended the Legislature for addressing tourism issues.

One aspect of Hawaii’s current travel testing program requires travelers to quarantine for 10 days if they have not received a test result before departing for Hawaii, even if they receive a negative result upon landing or shortly after. Hannemann hopes the Legislature will look at that if possible.

Hikers gather at the summit of Diamond Head lookout.
A “green fee” would help pay for conservation efforts to offset the impacts of large numbers of tourists, such as these in 2019, whose numbers had caused a backlash among many residents before the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He said the Legislature, where laws are generally crafted in public, is a good venue for hashing out such policies, even if the industry doesn’t get what it wants.

“Make it transparent,” he said. “Put it out there. If it comes out the other way and people want that, then we’ll live with that.”

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