A bill that would have implemented several recommendations from a scathing audit of the Agribusiness Development Corporation is expected to die without a hearing before Friday’s legislative deadline.

What remains alive this session is a Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, that will pull the beleaguered agency out from under the Department of Agriculture and move it to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

That measure is set for decision-making Tuesday before the House Finance Committee. Senate Bill 2473 has been panned by critics, who believe that transferring ADC to DBEDT would fundamentally change the corporation’s priorities, disenfranchise small farmers and herald a list of unintended and unforeseen consequences.

ADC was audited last year by a House panel, which detailed a legacy of mismanagement and found that the corporation had digressed from its institutional purpose. Rep. Della Au Belatti, who chaired the panel, introduced a bill aimed at addressing ADC’s failures but it must be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee by Friday to keep moving forward this session.

State lawmakers are considering ways to improve the Agribusiness Development Corporation this session. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

But Dela Cruz, the committee’s chair, says that’s not going to happen, in part because some of the House bill’s language has since been included in SB 2473. Its first draft only transferred ADC between departments.

Notwithstanding the House’s amendments to the bill’s language – to include more oversight of the corporation’s executive director and focus on local food production – fears remain over how ADC will do under DBEDT.

Some argue agribusiness is best developed under an economic agency, which can help promote investment and innovation, while others say DOA is best versed in agricultural matters and that the 2021 audit proved there was a lack of agricultural understanding within the ADC.

The Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action was among those opposing the measure, contending the bill would be a waste of the audit’s work and findings.

HAPA Executive Director Anne Frederick says that moving the agency to an economically focused agency would further disenfranchise ADC’s stakeholders, including the small farmers who constitute a majority of Hawaii’s agricultural system.

The bill was also lacking in goal-setting and metrics despite changes in its language, Frederick says, which all circled back to the managerial issues found in the audit.

“I think the Senate’s position is really business as usual,” Frederick said. “I don’t think that they really want to see any additional mandates.”

But Dela Cruz says he is trying to be pragmatic about how to bolster Hawaii’s food system and industry, something he does not believe is best done with DOA, as it was focused on regulation rather than economic development. And because DBEDT’s mandate is innovation and making Hawaii’s economy globally competitive — and that it already oversaw three corporations — it is a better fit, he said.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz says the ADC will be better off under DBEDT. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

“A lot of stuff that people are bringing up, I don’t necessarily disagree with,” Dela Cruz said. “There’s lots of things that have to be changed but at the same time we should go to the root of the problem.”

ADC’s jurisdiction covers tens of thousands of former sugar cane and pineapple plantation lands, which still need infrastructural improvements, he said.

Then there is the need for facilities that can help create a larger, more comprehensive food system that not only produces food by moving it into domestic and international markets, Dela Cruz said. Over time, more facilities such as the not-yet-complete Whitmore Community Food Hub, would be needed, he added.

Agricultural groups’ reservations are rooted in feeding Hawaii and helping Hawaii’s own agribusiness. So for Frederick, moving ADC to DBEDT spells a future without consideration for the regular farmer, considering the corporation’s history of working with global agrochemical and seed companies.

“I think it just aligns with that big business approach to ag,” Frederick said.

Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto on Friday provided testimony to the Finance Committee, saying he understood how a business approach could help the corporation do what it was created for in 1994.

“We do recognize that ADC does align with some of DBEDT’s mission,” Miyamoto said, adding that the bureau does see merit to the transfer.

But from the Farm Bureau’s point of view, he said, “DOA aligns with ADC.”

The House Finance Committee postponed its decision on the bill Friday following lengthy questioning from members and public testimony so the committee could further consult with the relevant agencies.

Frederick said she hopes the delay indicates the committee would revisit the bill and revise it to reflect the wording of the audit-focused House bill.

“I think that’s a pretty good sign actually,” Frederick said. “I think they may not have been aware that WAM had not scheduled their bill.”

Frederick was hopeful the House might remove the transfer provision but was unsure it would happen.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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