Legislators again seek creation of independent corporation to oversee state’s airports

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo A Hawaiian Airlines jet prepares for takeoff at Hilo International Airport.

A bill that would shift authority over the state’s airports from the Department of Transportation to an independent airports corporation was introduced for the fourth consecutive year.

Senate Bill 666 is the latest iteration of a years-long struggle to improve the quality and efficiency of the state’s airports. A functionally identical bill was introduced last year and made it most of the way through the state Legislature before being unexpectedly abandoned at the final hurdle.

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The purpose of SB 666, like the previous bills since 2016, is to streamline the process required to make decisions regarding the state’s airports, said Sen. Lorraine Inouye, a Big Island Democrat and Senate transportation committee chairwoman who co-introduced SB 666 and last year’s bill.

Currently, responsibility for managing and operating the state’s air transportation infrastructure is distributed throughout several different state agencies, including the Department of Transportation, Department of Health, Hawaii Tourism Authority, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and others. This leads to inefficiency and delays when it comes to making decisions regarding airports, including maintenance or renovation plans.

“We want clean restrooms, we want nice airports,” Inouye said, adding that Hawaii is one of only three states in the nation where airports are still managed by the state government — and it shows.

The bill would establish a corporation — led by a board consisting of at least one resident from each Hawaii county and two members appointed by the governor — that would take over management of all seven of the state’s commercial airports. Centralizing management responsibilities in that way would allow decisions to be carried out more quickly, which would itself allow much-needed renovations to be made at the state’s airports.

“We’re looking at modernizations that are already used by airports all around the country,” Inouye said.

Last year’s bill failed after the conferees of a House committee were abruptly discharged before making a final decision regarding the bill, thus stalling any further development. Inouye said she suspected disagreements regarding the corporation’s proposed relationship to the state’s procurement code led to the bill’s ultimate fate.

The 2018 bill, as well as SB 666, exempted the corporation from the state’s lengthy procurement code, which is a significant factor in the corporation’s presumed efficacy. Some trade associations resisted that exemption on the grounds that the procurement code requires that contractors must list their subcontractors; removing that requirement would allow unscrupulous businesses to pass off low-bid work to others for profit.

Indeed, several organizations raised that very issue with SB 666 during a January hearing of the Senate Committee on Transportation.

“The Procurement Code was put into place in order to avoid irregularities in the expenditure of public money. It serves a good purpose,” wrote Tim Lyons, president of the Subcontractors Association of Hawaii, in testimony for the January hearing. “We have heard few accusations tying the operational aspects of the procurement code and the other woes of the airport together.”

Lyons proposed adding language to the bill that would still require contract bidders to list all contractors or subcontractors involved in a project even if the corporation was exempt from the procurement code.

Inouye said SB 666 was amended to address concerns regarding subcontractor listing in accordance with Lyons’ concerns.

“Everyone’s happy with it,” Inouye said.

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The bill is currently before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which must make a decision on it by March 1.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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