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Hawaii lawmakers: Tourism Authority must disclose spending

When questioned by lawmakers and tourism industry stakeholders for information on how the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) utilizes its taxpayer dollars to market the islands, the Authority responded to

When questioned by lawmakers and tourism industry stakeholders for information on how the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) utilizes its taxpayer dollars to market the islands, the Authority responded to members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee saying it would not provide them with a full budget. The Authority said some of the budgetary items were “competitively sensitive.” Complaints from lawmakers were immediate.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) receives US$82 million from taxes generated by transient accommodation, plus US$26.5 million budgeted for the Hawaii Convention Center, but their lips are sealed as to how all those millions are spent.

The Chairman of the Hawaii Senate’s Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology Committee, Sen. Glenn Wakai, said he waited over a month for HTA to respond to his open records request for the budget. HTA finally said it would respond, but only to some lawmakers, and only if they promised to keep it secret from the public.

Sen. Wakai has since introduced a bill to end a 2010 law which gives HTA the ability to discuss “competitively sensitive” information behind closed doors. The bill also demands that the Tourism Authority provide unedited budgets to legislative leaders.

Lawmakers and tourism stakeholders are also putting pressure on HTA to hold public meetings. Ever since the current HTA President and CEO, George Szigeti, took over in May of 2015, closed-door executive sessions have gotten longer and more the norm.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority Board Chairman, Rick Fried, said the agency is considering the adoption of aa new policy requiring board approval for expenditures over $250,000, in addition to the establishment of a marketing advisory committee to oversee staff marketing decisions. Fried did say, however, that the Board is in agreement that price information for certain sporting events have to be withheld, because they are easily transferable. The events in question are: the PGA Tour, Ironman World Championship, LPGA, Team Unlimited Xterra/Xduro, Kemper Sports Maui Invitational, soccer-related events, rugby-related events, and tennis-related events.

The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority is now looking at ways to increase public transparency following the scathing criticism it is receiving from lawmakers, stakeholders, and the public over how it is spending millions of taxpayer dollars to market the Aloha State.