The House’s attempts to reorganize government watchdog agencies and gut the state auditor’s budget appear to have stalled for this legislative session.

House Bill 1341 would have consolidated the offices of the auditor, ombudsman, information practices, ethics commission and campaign spending commission into a new Office of Public Accountability. Most of those agencies opposed the bureaucratic reshuffling.

Meanwhile, House leaders had also proposed 50% cuts to State Auditor Les Kondo’s budget.

But as the Legislature approaches its halfway point, it appears neither will move forward.

HB 1341 failed to gain a hearing, and funding for Kondo’s office has mostly been restored. Kondo is the target of an investigation by House Speaker Scott Saiki.

House Speaker Scott Saiki and Majority leader Della Au Belatti during House press conference post 2020 State of the State address.
House Speaker Scott Saiki and Majority Leader Della Au Belatti have led efforts to consolidate state agencies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The House-led inquiry into Kondo’s office, the proposed budget cuts and the measure to consolidate the state agencies into one office were seen as an attempt by lawmakers to exert undue influence on those agencies, which are often called on to independently investigate the actions of state officials and lawmakers.

HB 1341 would also give lawmakers the authority to set the salaries for the auditor, the director of the Legislative Reference Bureau, the executive director of the ethics commission and the ombudsman.

House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, HB 1341’s author, said in early February that the measure was part of a broader effort to reorganize government, which also meant looking inward at some agencies attached to the Legislature.

Belatti said there are still plans to consolidate some state agencies, but that won’t happen this session.

“We are going to continue to look at how to reorganize and consolidate as we move trough the biennium,” Belatti said. “We didn’t move that bill (HB1341) but it’s still something on top of mind.”

Sandy Ma, executive director of the open-government group Common Cause Hawaii, said she’s glad to see the measure stall. She said the subject matter each agency covers is different. Furthermore, some of the agencies, like the campaign spending commission and ethics commission, already have boards that oversee their work.

“I think public pressure really halted this from going forward,” Ma said of HB 1341.

A measure to combine the Land Use Commission and Office of Planning into one entity won approval in the House Friday and will move to the Senate.

And while Saiki is still leading an effort to audit the state auditor, lawmakers no longer appear poised to make drastic cuts to the auditor’s budget or gain control of his salary.

On Wednesday, the House Finance Committee approved 8% cuts for all legislative agencies including the ethics commission, the auditor’s office and the ombudsman. A previous version of House Bill 1, the Legislature’s budget bill, would have cut the auditor’s budget by about 50%, down to $1.5 million.

Belatti said that the House decided to go with the 8% cuts across the board while lawmakers contemplate how to reorganize the legislative agencies.

At a hearing Wednesday, Kondo said he was glad much of his office’s budget was restored.

“It will allow us to continue the work we are supposed to be doing,” Kondo told the committee, adding that the new draft of HB 1 brings back a revolving fund used to pay accounting firms to conduct annual financial reports for the state.

The Legislature’s budget still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by the governor.

House Bill 354, also introduced by Saiki and Belatti, would give lawmakers control of the auditor’s salary, which is currently tied to that of the state health director. The auditor serves an eight-year term, and lawmakers are unable to adjust the position’s salary during that period.

HB 354 also never got a hearing.

Saiki has said that the investigation was being launched because Kondo missed deadlines on reports and became involved in “unnecessary litigation.” Specifically, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs refused to release certain documents to Kondo for an audit. What followed was a lawsuit that has tied up the audit as well as funding for OHA, which was contingent upon the audit’s completion.

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