The new governing authority for Mauna Kea needs $28 million over the next two years as it begins the transition to take over stewardship of Hawaii’s tallest mountain in 2028, the interim chair told state lawmakers on Thursday.

Last year, the state adopted a new law that transfers responsibility for the Big Island volcano, an astronomy center that is home to powerful telescopes, from the University of Hawaii to the panel in five years. The decision was a compromise amid concerns that the revered mountain was being exploited.

The Legislature allocated $14 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30 to help the panel get started, but any funds not spent by the end of June will revert back to the state. That’s a problem because the panel so far has spent less than $1,000 on travel expenses to meet on Hawaii island, according to the interim chair, John Komeiji.

The University of Hawaii has long had authority over much of Mauna Kea, including the astronomy zone, but that oversight will pass to an 11-member panel in 2028. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Gov. Josh Green’s administration included an additional $14 million each for fiscal years 2024 and 2025 in its budget proposal. Komeiji presented his case for needing the funds during a Senate Ways and Means committee hearing on Thursday before the Legislature convenes next week.

If approved, some of the money will go toward hiring an executive assistant, as well as operational costs and travel expenses, Komeiji said, adding that the panel currently has no staff but relies on assistance from UH and the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“We’re trying to get to know each other and understand the scope of what we’re being asked to undertake,” Komeiji said during the committee hearing. “We’ve come to the conclusion that the first thing on our plate is to stand up this new state agency, and we’re beginning to understand the complexities.”

Members of the panel named by former Gov. David Ige in September include Native Hawaiian activists as well as people with expertise in astronomy, business and finance, land management and education. They still need to be confirmed by the full Senate.

‘A Five-Year Window’

The authority comprises 11 voting members with expertise in land management, education, business and finance, and a cultural practitioner. Their main task is creating land use and managing policies during the five-year transition period.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, asked the authority to come up with a budget plan by March to show exactly how they plan to spend the funds.

“You guys can do what you can, and by the time March comes around, we’ll have a better idea of what you have to do,” Dela Cruz said.

Komeiji said another challenge is that 90% of the current employees managing Mauna Kea work for the university, which has access to state funds, research funds and tuition.

The new panel is trying to come up with other sources of revenue to fund their employees, he said.

Komeiji is also asking lawmakers to create 50 positions but said it would be challenging to hire people before June, when the current funds expire.

“We have a five-year window,” Komeiji said. “So how long is it going to take for me to hire 50 people?” Komeiji added that the authorities are trying to figure that out.

The authority has only met twice, most recently on Tuesday to create a group tasked with coming up with recommendations on creating bylaws and establishing a vice chair and committees within the panel.

UH, which has faced years of complaints about its care for Mauna Kea, has managed most of the lands in a 65-year leave granted by the state in 1968. The mountain’s peak has been the hub of past protests over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Many Native Hawaiians consider the summit sacred and opposed the construction of another telescope there.

The new stewards were named with the hope that they will provide a balanced approach to the mountain. The new law promises to keep supporting astronomy as a state policy.

“While Gov. Ige announced the names for the Mauna Kea management authority, Gov. Green will have to formally send it to the Senate, the names of those that he wants to serve on the authority permanently,” Senate spokesman Jacob Aki said.

Green’s office declined to say if the governor would change the current makeup of the panel.

“I want to build a new pathway forward that considers all people and is respectful of our host culture,” Green said in an email statement. “Through that lens, I have had a chance to meet with the existing nominees for the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, and I am encouraged by our discussion and our shared commitment to do what is pono as we plan for the best management of Mauna Kea.”

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