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Friday, March 31, 2000

Lawmaker bids
to save small-biz
relief plan

His bill calls for the state
budget office to oversee a
board and a defender's position

By Tim Ruel


The state legislator who helped develop an advisory board and an independent defender's position to fight unfair business regulations is trying to save the advocacy system from the bureaucracy it was supposed to tame.

Legislature 2000 Responding to business concerns, the Legislature in 1998 created a state board with private-sector members to review all government rules affecting small businesses, and a public defender's post to mediate minor disputes between companies and government agencies.

But the 11-member board has complained of numerous government delays and has suffered four defections recently, while the Legislature has twice refused to fund the defender's position, which remains unfilled.

Rep. Bob Herkes, who began his push for the board and the defender in 1996, has introduced another bill that would shift administration for both to the state Department of Budget and Finance. The bill, which has a companion in the Senate, also would fund the defender with an as-yet undetermined amount.

The bill passed another hurdle today but Herkes (D, Puna-Ka'u) declined to predict if the measure would survive. Last year, he introduced a similar bill that died late in the session.

The Legislature originally placed the Small Business Regulatory Review Board within the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. The Legislature kept the defender within its own body, just like the state auditor and ombudsman.

Herkes said he wants to move the board and the defender to the Budget Department to improve their chances for funding. He said he also wants to send the message that DBEDT has discouraged board members.

Herkes said members have told him the department has been more interested in dictating rules to the board than helping it.

"That's why they're mad as hell," he said of the members.

DBEDT's Business Support Division administrator Tom Smyth, who works directly with the board, said the department has adequately helped and funded the board.

The frustration comes from board members who have been given a "cumbersome" task and who aren't used to working with government, he said.

Board members were frustrated by the amount of time it took state departments to comply with the new law requiring them to submit a report on how the regulations the departments administer affect businesses. Some departments still have not complied.

Four board members have quit since October and while most publicly cited personal reasons for leaving, former member Ken Ono said he felt he was wasting his time.

Ono, owner of a health services business on the Big Island, had originally pushed for the act that created the board. But Ono said that after joining, the board, he found it was inadequately supported by DBEDT and Cayetano.

Smyth said he is sorry Ono was frustrated. But Smythe added there is nothing he can do: That's just the way government works.

Meanwhile, a small business defender was supposed to work with the board by representing businesses that face civil citations from state or county agencies that cost less than $25,000. The Legislature, however, failed to appropriate funds for the defender in 1998 and 1999.

Herkes' latest bill would pay the defender the same salary as a state department director, about $85,000, with full benefits.

At a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing today committee Co-chairman Andrew Levin (D, Ka'u-South Kona) said he thinks that's too high.

"We are not convinced that the small business defender should be funded at that level," said Levin.

The committee passed the bill back to the Senate for a full vote, but with a recommendation that the proposed $85,000 salary is too high.

If the proposals pass in both the House and Senate, a conference committee from both branches will hammer out details later in the session and submit the measure for a final vote.

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