Measure that would limit HTA’s resources passes final committee

  • WAKAI

A bill that would substantially limit the resources and duties of the Hawaii Tourism Authority has passed its final committee in the state Senate.

Earlier this week, language was added to House Bill 862 that transformed it from a generally uncontroversial bill that reconfigured the state’s management of the aerospace industry into a widely unpopular measure that would, in the eyes of its opponents, significantly limit HTA’s ability to manage tourism statewide.

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The changes made to the bill cut back HTA’s authority to conduct activities other than marketing and promotion. This removed from HTA the ability to develop policies and programs relating to the ecological impacts of tourism or the promotion of Native Hawaiian culture, or the ability to form advisory groups with state and county agencies, and more.

The bill also limited the amount of funding HTA could draw from the Tourism Emergency Special Fund, and completely cut the allocation of Transient Accommodations Tax revenues to that fund.

The bill was opposed by HTA, whose president and CEO John De Fries said during a Friday joint hearing by the Senate Ways and Means and Commerce and Consumer Protection committees that the bill attempts to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

“It felt like it was trying to fix something that was not broken, and when we commit ourselves to doing that, the prerequisite is that we have to break it,” De Fries said.

However, despite De Fries’ opposition — as well as the more than 200 pages of opposing testimony — the committees voted Friday to pass the measure. Although the committees added some minor amendments, the bulk of the cuts to HTA remain unchanged.

Those amendments would allow Hawaiian cultural programs administered by HTA to continue, albeit under the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, and HTA was mandated to work with the HSFCA to ensure its tourism marketing is culturally sensitive.

Despite its unpopularity, the bill was necessary in order to rein in HTA, said Oahu Sen. Glenn Wakai, who sits on the Ways and Means committee.

“We need to hold HTA accountable,” Wakai said. “We saw recurring mismanagement of the budget, and the spending that they are putting forward on marketing Hawaii, particularly to Asian markets, (is) paying very little dividends.”

Wakai said HTA paid, on average, about $5.70 per Japanese tourist who visited in Hawaii in 2019. As of February, however, that sum has ballooned to $244 per Japanese tourist, which Wakai called “misaligned.”

“Moving them from special funds, where they can just do whatever they want and continue to do as they please, and making them now general-funded holds them accountable to us and the taxpayers to make sure they’re spending our appropriation wisely,” Wakai said.

Wakai added that HTA’s remaining budget can still be used to market events such as the Merrie Monarch Festival to continue to promote Hawaiian culture.

Having passed its last Senate committees, the bill will next go to a third reading and vote on the floor of the Senate.

HTA received more bad news Friday when the Senate passed its draft of the state budget, which included a budgetary reduction of $27,357,559 for the agency.

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The remaining $48.1 million in HTA’s budget will come from funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which included $1.6 billion in aid to Hawaii.

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

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