Plans to revamp state agency ill-advised at present
In the middle of all the economic havoc, some state lawmakers want to reorganize or dismantle the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism — a 305-person department whose responsibilities range from real estate development to promoting the film industry, alternative energy and high-tech businesses.
It's certainly reasonable to take a close look at DBEDT's expansive operations, as with all departments, during these difficult times.
But lawmakers must not let politics or haste guide such crucial decisions, particularly at a time when DBEDT must have a laser focus on helping to guide Hawaii out of this economic mess.
In the coming weeks, various proposals to reinvent DBEDT — Senate Bill 294, House Bill 1260 and the budget bills themselves — will be sorted out in conference committees. The bills — which range from a wholesale dismantling of DBEDT to transferring a few pieces of it to other agencies — attempt too much with too little deliberation, and at a time when other issues demand higher priority.
The complications resulting from such proposals have not been fully vetted, as objections from the other affected agencies attest.
There are no obvious cost savings pegged to the changes. And in the face of a critical budget crisis, with basic social safety-net services on the chopping block, it seems unwise for lawmakers to spend time arguing over whether the state film office belongs with DBEDT or some other department.
Certainly, it's important that DBEDT operate efficiently, with transparency and the confidence of the public.
That confidence has been tested of late, with questions raised about its director, Ted Liu, who was under Senate investigation for a questionable hydrogen fund contract — an inquiry that led nowhere. DBEDT has also been criticized for poor judgment in using private sponsors to fund a 2005 Asian trip, and for a lack of accountability in its efforts to advance the state's Clean Energy Initiative.
The administration and Liu have vigorously denied wrongdoing. And Liu raises reasonable concerns that, in the midst of a serious short-term financial crisis, a shakeup of DBEDT would be adversely disruptive.
As the administration's key planning agency, DBEDT has aligned its divisions to work toward some of the state's most important economic goals: promoting high technology, alternative energy and small business.
DBEDT's critics have raised legitimate worries in the public eye about agency's effectiveness. And enough serious questions have been raised about DBEDT to warrant a thorough review. Policymakers, including the state auditor, are rightfully taking a closer look at the agency. But this should be done first — and with careful deliberation — before proposing to take the agency apart.