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Editorial: Spats aside, Hawaii needs to focus on the economic challenge

How can Hawaii business recover from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown and recession? Who knows?

That expression captures the difficulty of envisioning that future. But it also marks the frustration with the lack of a fully formed state recovery plan, presented well to the public — assuming there is such a plan at all.

In the end, the failure reflects badly on Gov. David Ige, whose duty it is to see that his agency chiefs deliver, or to send them packing.

It’s especially disturbing that this dysfunction centers on the state’s chief economic agency, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), and on its top official in particular.

The most dispiriting part: While many across the state are in a world of economic hurt, the official planning for a rescue strategy has disintegrated into an uncoordinated tangle, punctuated by a downright childish snit, playing out for all to see.

Most of that display is the work of the DBEDT director, Mike McCartney, a former state senator who has had a falling out with at least some of his one-time colleagues. That has been evident over the past few weeks, with state senators grilling department staffers and McCartney complaining about their treatment by the panel, the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19.

Last week tensions peaked when DBEDT officials heading its offices on economic analysis, energy, tourism and other centers of job creation failed to show up at an informational briefing before the committee, chaired by state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.

McCartney said in an email, sent to Senate President Ron Kouchi just after the hearing was to start, that he would not subject staff to “harassment, intimidation and threats.”

He also told Kouchi he planned to file an official complaint, under Senate rules, against Dela Cruz and state Sen. Glenn Wakai, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy, Energy Development and Tourism.

The genesis of all this bad blood is undoubtedly complicated, with some of the drama conducted out of the public eye. What has happened in full view over recent weeks before the special committee did not seem abusive; there were tough questions, especially when state staffers appeared to come unprepared, but answers to hard questions are what’s required in a crisis.

In any case, none of that matters to the taxpayers, whose interests simply are not being served. The real imperative here is to get some action to shore up the economy in the near term, and to give it more resilience against future downturns.

Kouchi should consider bringing the discussion to a different venue. Perhaps Attorney General Clare Connors can facilitate things, as Dela Cruz suggested.

Above all, McCartney has shown himself to be ineffective in his role. If the governor wants to be seen as tackling the difficult economic problems the state faces, he needs someone at the helm of the agency who can do the job.

McCartney did send the Senate a PowerPoint presentation of a plan, which on the whole was unhelpful: It needed to be unpacked and explained under questioning.

For example, a section about job retention and creation during the pandemic recovery phase merely outlines elements such as “renewable energy projects” and the launch of a new “conservation corps job program.” Someone needs to put some meat on these bones. What are these, and how actionable are these plans?

It’s the Senate panel’s job to figure out where federal COVID-19 relief funds should be deployed to help Hawaii’s newly unemployed as much as possible, and McCartney decided not to let the questioning — and help — begin.

THERE ARE other fault lines cracking open between the legislative and executive branches. Senators, vexed by the Ige administra- tion’s halting responses, have contemplated authorizing subpoena power to get information. That hasn’t materialized — yet — but the warring parties have not brokered a peace toward progress, either.

Further, the governor is plainly angry that the Legislature bottled up much of the federal CARES Act money in the “rainy day” fund that it controls, signaling a broad estrangement that’s worrisome.

There also is the pending retirement of Chris Tatum, the Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO, which will leave that key agency rudderless. This is hugely troubling in unprecedented times for the tourism industry, with most hotels here shuttered for lack of visitors.

In the midst of this struggle, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the city’s own plan to consolidate municipal economic- development staffing in a single agency to be based at the Neal Blaisdell Center. Although the basic mission to push out funding for job creation purposes is correct, it’s not clear that a rebranded agency with more staffing won’t be mainly bureaucracy-building. This needs further discussion.

Ultimately, what all the counties need most is a partner at the state level that can coordinate and leverage available resources for their highest purpose: the rebuilding of an economy now in crisis. It’s infuriating how little this administration has done so far to fill that role.

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