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Some Democrats want to break up DBEDT


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POSTED: Sunday, April 12, 2009

After years of squabbles over the state department that handles island tourism, business development and renewable energy, some Democratic lawmakers want to break up its wide-ranging operations.

The current version of Hawaii's state budget would disassemble the 305-employee Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Controversies swirling around the agency with the long name, known for short as DBEDT, include a failed push for criminal charges against its director, a battle over money for an Asian trip led by the governor, and arguments over ambitious plans to wean the state off fossil fuels.

Those opposed to the extreme step of overhauling the department at a time of economic crisis, like Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, called the idea “;ridiculous”; and “;silly.”;

“;It will not stand. It won't end up happening. I think it's a distraction from the major economic recovery we all should be involved in,”; Lingle said last month. “;Those kind of personality plays by certain members of the Legislature are really destructive to our recovery efforts.”;

The department's job is to research the state's economy and help the government and businesses look for new opportunities.

It is unclear whether legislators intend to carry out their threat of transferring some of the department's divisions to other agencies even though it will result in little if any savings. Similar proposals are included in the House and Senate budgets, which have already passed key committees in both chambers.

A separate measure, which passed its final House committee Wednesday, takes a more gentle approach by relocating fewer parts of the department and spending nearly $400,000 for seven new positions to help the department do its job.

“;We went and took an outpatient cosmetic surgery-type approach,”; said House Finance Chairman Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Poamoho). “;There can be improvements. This is maybe a good opportunity to re-examine their mission and their focus.”;

Legislators were displeased with the department and its Lingle-appointed director, Ted Liu, following several disputes.

A Senate investigatory report released last fall accused Liu of steering a hydrogen fund contract to a favored company even though it was not ranked as the most qualified bidder.

A separate dust-up involved the department's use of a nonprofit, without competitive bidding, to handle $268,000 in private sponsorships to fund a 2005 trip Lingle led to China and Korea.

Finally, Oshiro previously had accused the department of failing to provide a clear plan with specific performance measures for the state's Clean Energy Initiative, which aims to produce 70 percent of the state's energy from clean sources by 2030.

Two audits of the department are pending.

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who led the Senate's investigation, said the severity of the Legislature's restructuring of the department will be negotiated in a House and Senate conference committee. Unlike Oshiro, she was not ready to back off the proposals included in the state budget.

“;We'll work that out in conference,”; said Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Halawa), chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “;We want all our departments to be efficient.”;

The budget also would eliminate the department's deputy director.

Liu said dismantling his department would make it more difficult to handle the state's economic difficulties.

“;I don't know the reasons behind these proposed reorganizations,”; Liu said. “;There really was not an articulation of why the new alignment was any better. Why shuffle entities around if there's no budgetary savings?”;

The budget bill calls for removing various duties from the department: the Research and Economic Analysis Division and the Creative Industries Division, the Small Business Regulatory Review Board, the Land Use Commission, the Office of Planning, the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority and the High Technology Development Corp.

What is left would be the Strategic Industries Division, the Strategic Marketing and Support Division, the Foreign Trade Zone Division and several attached boards.