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$50M First Responder Tech Campus Sparks Transparency Debate

The Hawaii Legislature appropriated $50 million in its recently passed state budget bill to begin building a 243-acre First Responder Technology Campus on Oahu. The effort has raised concerns about legislative transparency.

Hawaii State Capitol
(TNS) — An effort to fund initial construction of an elaborate state, county and federal first-responder agency campus on Oahu survived a contentious and somewhat opaque legislative budgetary practice this year.

The Legislature appropriated $50 million in its recently passed state budget bill to begin building the long-envisioned First Responder Technology Campus for up to 19 law enforcement, fire, defense and other emergency-response agencies on 243 acres of former plantation land in Mililani owned by the state.

Debate has been spirited over merits of the plan, which includes office, storage and meeting space, tactical raid practice facilities, an indoor shooting range, a driving course, a cyber security data center, housing, a hotel, retail space and a community center.

The state has already spent $17 million on plans, land acquisition and other things, but the construction funding, which is for the fiscal year starting July 1 and still subject to approval by Gov. Josh Green, produced discord among some lawmakers over transparency and informed voting on the budget bill before final House and Senate approval May 4.

Rep. Amy Perruso (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore Village-Mokuleia ) criticized the appropriation for the project, which is in her district and has an estimated development cost of between $315 million and $470 million, as one reason she voted against the budget measure, House Bill 300.

Perruso said colleagues gave corporations, developers and builders too many benefits in the bill at the expense of other things, including education, while "sneaking in " the $50 million first-responder project appropriation.

"In both process and outcome, this budget undermines public confidence in the Legislature, " she said.

Rep. Elle Cochran (D, Waihee-Lahaina-Lahainaluna ) complained that details of HB 300 were unavailable to scrutinize before final voting, even though she was a member of the House Finance Committee that earlier endorsed the bill's final draft with members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on a joint conference committee.

"This hasn't given me enough information, " she said on the House chamber floor, explaining why she would vote against approving the bill.

Rep. Gene Ward, whose experience at the Legislature dates to 1990, said that as far as he can remember, opacity in producing a new biennial budget bill every two years has always existed.

"It's basically a private, closed-door process, " Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley ) told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "We never see hide nor hair of details. It's not transparent."

Ward voted for the budget bill with reservations.

Rep. Kyle Yamashita, House Finance Committee chair and one of two budget bill gatekeepers, said in a statement that producing the $10 billion budget was done through the usual negotiating process that balanced many priorities.

The other gatekeeper, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said budgetary details are available to any senators who ask him or know where to look.

Dela Cruz (D, Mililani-Wahiawa-Whitmore Village ), a longtime champion for the first-responder project that would provide some agencies shared facilities that they help pay for, bristled at the allegation that funding for the project was snuck into the budget bill.

"It's not just up to me, " he said in an interview. "You have to get the House to agree."

Yamashita (D, Pukalani-Makawao-Ulupalakua ) said nothing was "snuck in " the budget bill.

Dela Cruz added that Green, who became governor in December, asked the Legislature to budget money for the project.

"Part of it being in the budget is the governor requested it be in his budget, " Dela Cruz said.

Green in February requested changes to the proposed executive budget that was introduced in January and prepared by his predecessor, Gov. David Ige.

The new governor sought $17.5 million for "basic infrastructure on undeveloped land for the first responders tech campus, " according to Green's first message to the Legislature dated Feb. 13.

Separately, Chris Sada yasu, then-director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, conveyed to Yamashita and Dela Cruz that an agency attached to DBEDT leading the first-responder project, the Hawaii Technology Development Corp., was seeking $50 million to begin infrastructure construction, according to Dane Wicker, DBEDT's deputy director.

The House Finance Committee on March 8 passed its amended version the budget bill that cut the first-responder project appropriation, and after a full House vote the bill moved to the Ways and Means Committee for consideration.

Ways and Means on March 30 made its own changes, including two capital investment appropriations for HTDC—one for $17.5 million and one for $50 million. Specifics for those items weren't described in the Senate's version of the bill, which the full Senate approved April 11.

The budget bill does not typically include much detail on spending items, but a more detailed April 11 worksheet for the Senate version of the budget describes HTDC's $50 million appropriation as being for "infrastructure improvements for regional economic development."

To resolve House and Senate differences over the budget bill, all 16 House Finance members and 13 Ways and Means members formed a conference committee to agree upon a compromise draft.

The Legislature's regular practice to produce this "conference draft " leaves negotiation over what can be hundreds of spending items needing agreement to the pair of committee chairs. The two chairs then recommend approval to committee members, who aren't privy to all the changes but vote on the final product anyway, usually based on their chair's judgment.

This conference draft was approved April 25 unanimously and without reservation.

The next day, House and Senate officials released a list of about 230 appropriations as "notable highlights." First-responder campus project funding wasn't among them.

A $12 million appropriation to help develop a new headquarters for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which supports the first-responder project as an envisioned tenant, also was not highlighted but is in the budget bill as desired by Dela Cruz and agreed to by Yamashita.

Yamashita noted in May 4 written comments on the budget that a past practice, before he became House Finance chair this year, was to announce every budget line item in painstaking detail over several days—until last year when the practice was replaced by highlights in a streamlining effort.

"Perhaps streamlining the process needs to be revisited, " Yamashita noted.

Colin Moore, a political scientist with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said the practice of two lawmakers in Hawaii's 51-member Legislature deciding how to mesh House and Senate versions of the budget bill is partly a practical result of time constraints and because a majority of lawmakers haven't decided to change the practice.

Hawaii's legislative session includes only 60 meeting days stretched from mid-January to early May.

"A lot of this operates on trust partly because time constraints are so severe, " said Moore, adding that a year-round Legislature would allow more informed decision-making by all lawmakers.

To get a sense of the budget bill's density, the final draft this year was 233 pages, while the associated, more-detailed worksheet was 1, 070 pages.

Part of the criticism over the budget from some House members on the last day of this year's legislative session, when the final vote was taken on HB 300, is that the more-detailed worksheet wasn't available.

It took staff from the House Finance and Senate Ways and Means committees until May 15 to publish the worksheet. The final draft of the bill made no reference to a first-responder project appropriation, though HTDC's operating budget included a $60 million general fund appropriation, up from $16 million in the earlier House draft.

Even HTDC officials could not tell at that point whether any construction funding for the project was appropriated.

The worksheet published more than a week after the final budget bill vote indicated a $50 million HTDC appropriation for "infrastructure improvements for regional economic development."

Part of the appropriation's criticism by some House members was because a separate bill introduced this year to fund initial first-responder campus construction failed to pass.

That measure, Senate Bill 1469, proposed $100 million to develop utilities and an initial road segment allowing the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which operates out of obsolete space under Diamond Head, to build a new operating base on part of the envisioned campus.

The bill was endorsed by several state and county agencies, with the exception of the Honolulu Police Department, which expressed concern that it lacks funding to help pay for many campus facilities that HPD already has.

There also was public opposition to the bill over several issues including necessity and cost.

SB 1469 sailed through the Ways and Means Committee and the full Senate in early March and April, then cleared the House Committee on Water and Land by a 6-1 vote.

The bill got blocked by the House Committee on Higher Education and Technology when Perruso, the committee's chair, declined to hold a hearing on it. She said at the time that the proposed funding was an unnecessary and imprudent use of so much money given competing state needs.

It's not unusual for appropriations in bills that stall to win approval as part of the budget bill. A few examples this year include $5 million for the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture ; $100 million for a solar system loan program ; a $64 million Hawai 'i Convention Center roof repair ; and a nebulous sum to operate the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

"Committee chairs in Hawaii are very powerful, " Moore said, "and finance chairs are the most powerful of all."

Green, meanwhile, is under pressure to cut budget funding given recent weakness in state tax collections. On Wednesday, Luis Salaveria, Green's finance director, said in a statement that a decision had yet to be made on the first-responder project funding.

"While the governor believes the project has some merit, especially as it envisions a sorely needed new Hawaii Emergency Management Agency facility, the governor is still evaluating the overall impact of the recently approved budget with the state's financial plan, along with how this project compares with other large priorities for the state, " Salaveria said.

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