State Rep. Richard Onishi said Friday scathing reports from the state auditor and the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization led to legislation that would abolish the Agriculture Development Corporation.
In addition, Onishi referred to reports from 2019 and 2020 that 257 acres of ADC land in Whitmore Village near Wahiawa, Oahu, was the site of illegal dumping, chop shop activity, plus drug and sex trafficking.
Onishi, a Hilo Democrat, and Rep. Jeanne Kapela, a Democrat who represents Kona and Ka‘u, have signed on as co-introducers of House Bill 1271. The bill was authored by Rep. Amy Perruso, a Democrat who represents the Central Oahu district where it’s alleged the illegal activity on ADC land occurred.
The measure passed its second reading Friday after a 7-1 vote Wednesday in the House Agriculture Committee. The nay came from Rep. James Tokioka, a Kauai Democrat, who joined central Oahu Republican Rep. Val Okimoto as the two no votes on the House floor.
The ADC — a quasi-governmental entity attached to but independent of the state Department of Agriculture — was established in 1994 to convert former pineapple and sugar lands for the development of sustainable agriculture by smaller farmers.
The bill would assign those duties to the DOA, which submitted written testimony in opposition to the measure.
“We have provided them with land, with funding, they have procurement exemptions, etc., to help with this development,” Onishi told the Tribune-Herald on Friday. “And, unfortunately, they really haven’t fulfilled their mission. I think people are frustrated.
“Seeing that, we have now tipped the scales and are now critically looking at eliminating that organization.”
Onishi also noted that the ADC and Jimmy Nakatani, it’s executive director, “for a couple of years fought us doing an audit of them, to look at their operations and their finances.”
“Then we got the report, and it really blasted them,” he added. “And then UHERO did an evaluation of ADC, and they were also very critical of the organization and the lack of work that they were supposed to do, in spite of having all these resources.”
“ADC has not become the entity the Legislature envisioned — one that would develop the agriculture industry to stand as a pillar of the state economy, alongside tourism and the military,” the audit stated. “After nearly 30 years, the economic void created when plantations ceased production remains mostly unfilled.”
Onishi said he had his own negative experience with ADC, procuring $2.5 million to develop irrigation and other infrastructure for an agriculture project on former sugar land in Ka‘u.
“And they dropped the ball on it, and the money lapsed,” he said.
The bill generated 197 pages of written testimony to the Committee on Agriculture, mostly in support, especially by individual testifiers.
Organizations in support include: Animal Rights Hawaii; Malama Moloa‘a; Hawaii Seed; Indigo Foundation; Clark Elements; Pele Lani Farm LLC; Pesticide Action Network North America; Alliance for Progressive Action; Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii and OrganicHawaii.org.
In addition to the DDOA, organizations opposed include: the ADC; Kauai Chamber of Commerce; Kauai Island Utility Cooperative; Friends of Waimanalo; Dole Food Co. Hawaii; Larry Jefts Farms LLC; Lin’s Farms; Kekaha Agriculture Association; Whitmore Economic Develop Group; Umi’s Farm; Hawaii Crop Improvement Association; Hawaii Farm Bureau; Ho Farms; CropLife America; and Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
During Friday’s floor discussion, Perruso said the subject of abolishing the ADC has come up multiple times since 1998.
“We have been asking for years for an audit. We finally received the audit. The results are scandalous. I’ve never read an audit report like that,” she said. “And I think it’s time for us to hold this agency accountable for the purpose of improving public confidence in government.”
Rep. Bob McDermott, a leeward Oahu Republican, commended Perruso “for her courage in introducing this bill.”
“I wouldn’t say the report was scandalous — more like comical, it was so bad. And, if nothing else, this is a shot across the bow to tell them to get their act together,” he said.
Rep. Dee Morikawa, a Kauai Democrat who voted in favor of the bill with reservations, noted ADC has partnerships in her district and is responsible for maintaining irrigation ditches.
“Because of that, it prevents extreme flooding for the town of Kekaha,” she said. “So this is very, very important for that town, and I just hope that these partnerships can continue if this bill should pass.”
Rep. Sharon Har, who was listed as excused on the floor vote, said via Zoom she opposes the measure and it’s her understanding ADC is “working toward addressing those issues’ raised by the state audit.”
“You just don’t throw away, repeal, a department that actually does a lot of great things that the Department of Agriculture cannot do,” she said. “The whole point of setting up these independent but attached agencies was to give them the latitude to do what other departments were unable to due to government bureaucracy.”
Rep. Gene Ward, a Republican who represents the Hawaii Kai neighborhood of Honolulu, supported the bill with reservations, but doubted government’s ability to accomplish ADC’s mission.
“If the private sector can’t do it, I would like to see what happens years ahead when the government now, the Department of Agriculture is posed and poised to do this,” he said.
“This will be a real test, which I doubt is going to be successful.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.