With the start of the 2019 legislative session, Hawai‘i lawmakers have returned to the state capitol. And so has OHA, with our general funds request of almost $8 million dollars of taxpayer funding for the biennium.
Now, as a Trustee of OHA, I support funding for the needs of native Hawaiian beneficiaries. And I want to make sure those funds are managed well and used for such purposes as housing, jobs, education, and health care. But if OHA cannot demonstrate that our funds are being managed properly, we run the risk of our request not being approved at the Capitol.
That’s what some legislators themselves are suggesting. For example, on January 9, after hearing OHA’s biennium budget request, members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee raised questions about the progress of the independent audit of OHA and its LLCs. A similar question was raised the next day at the House Finance Committee.
It’s not as if legislators are opposed to meeting the needs of native Hawaiians. Their concern is whether OHA is properly accounting for and using the funds it receives for the purposes intended. That concern is heightened by the following factors.
1. The Slowing Economy
Experts are pointing out that Hawai‘i’s prospects for continued economic growth have slowed down significantly, and that we may be in the beginning stages of an economic recession. Legislators will have fewer dollars to distribute to worthy causes, and must exercise more caution with funding requests.
2. The Legislative Audit of OHA
The state Auditor’s 2018 report on OHA identified several concerns that have yet to be fully resolved by OHA. These unresolved issues include reform of policies governing Trustee and CEO Sponsorships and the level of discretionary versus non-discretionary spending at OHA. Legislators no doubt want to see that OHA has dealt with the concerns of the state Auditor.
3. Delays in the Independent Audit of OHA and Its LLCs
Nearly a year and a half ago, all nine OHA Trustees approved and funded a $500,000 independent audit of OHA and its LLCs that would seek out potential instances of fraud, waste and abuse. Legislators realize the importance of this independent audit into OHA and its LLCs and may not look kindly upon further delay.
4. OHA’s Reputation
While I am proud that OHA does many good things for the Hawaiian people, some actions have resulted in a serious reputation problem. This is nothing new, and OHA has been aware of it, as indicated by a scientific survey OHA had SMS research conduct in 2015. According to that survey, OHA ranked at the very bottom of Hawaiian-serving institutions with respect to favorability ratings. Among those surveyed, perceptions of poor management and failure to represent the Hawaiian people effectively were cited as top reasons for OHA’s unfavorable ranking.
What’s the Solution?
I believe that OHA can demonstrate that it is worthy of taxpayer funding to serve its beneficiaries. For that to happen, OHA is going to have to prove itself to legislators and beneficiaries. OHA must show that it takes accountability seriously. Therefore, the Trustees need to ensure that nothing further delays the independent audit of OHA and its LLCs. Beneficiaries who care about improving OHA’s reputation should urge Trustees to follow through with this crucial independent audit. In the end, pressure from beneficiaries and the Legislature to make sure our financial house is in order is a good thing for the Hawaiian people.
Trustee Akina welcomes your comments and feedback at TrusteeAkina@oha.org.