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PISCES left in the lurch: Hilo-based program pau unless lawmakers save it

Lawmakers are scrambling to restore funding for a state-run aerospace center after a clerical error left it out of the state budget.

The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, or PISCES, has shut down after being unexpectedly left without an operating budget after an error in a state budget bill signed into law last month.

“I don’t know if they forgot, or neglected, to include funds for PISCES in the bill, but it didn’t make it into the final budget, and by the time anyone noticed, it had already been forwarded to the governor,” said former PISCES director Rodrigo Romo.

He said an earlier draft of the budget transferred PISCES’ budget to the University of Hawaii, but later drafts consolidating various budget items apparently did not include the center.

Oahu Rep. Sylvia Luke confirmed Friday that the budget issue was caused by a simple oversight — one that has potentially fatal ramifications for the aerospace center.

Romo said PISCES’ five employees have been laid off and its offices closed. Romo himself has taken another job and is now the Maunakea Visitor Information Station manager for Maunakea Support Services.

PISCES was founded in 2007 under an affiliation with UH-Hilo, but in 2012 was legislatively transferred to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Before it shut down, Romo said PISCES was working on a project under a NASA grant to develop a low-energy and low-cost method of manufacturing lunar landing pads.

“For a number of years, the current DBEDT director (Mike McCartney) has been trying to starve off PISCES,” said Hamakua Rep. Mark Nakashima. “He’s more of a tourism guy than a space guy. So we decided to transfer it back to UH-Hilo, which we knew would be a more hospitable environment for it.”

The bill transferring PISCES to UH-Hilo was House Bill 862, which passed through most of the state Legislature with little controversy or fanfare.

“Things actually looked great for us around May,” Romo said.

However, a Senate committee added several new clauses to the bill that more than tripled its length and changed its focus.

No longer was it a mere straightforward bill transferring one organization between state agencies, but instead became a flashpoint of controversy as it proposed large cutbacks to the budget and duties of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and changed the way Transient Accommodation Taxes would be distributed to the counties.

The revised HB 862 drew substantial ire from many sectors, including lawmakers and the business community, but successfully passed the Senate regardless. In the meantime, the PISCES-related clauses that remained in the bill went overlooked.

Ultimately, Gov. David Ige announced in June that he intended to veto HB 862 because of its potentially negative impacts on tourism and the state’s economy. A veto also would strike down the language transferring PISCES to UH-Hilo.

Romo said HB 862 was a setback, but wasn’t what ultimately killed PISCES — the error in the state budget was unrelated to the progress of the bill. However, the bill’s unpopularity could pose problems for reinstating PISCES’ budget.

“We hope to amend the transfer bill to include PISCES’ funding,” Nakashima said, explaining that HB 862 will be amended this week during a session to override the some of governor’s intended vetoes, and will include an $800,000 budget for PISCES.

However, he added that there is no intention to remove any of the HTA- or TAT-related language in the bill.

Nakashima said there are a pair of other bills that could be repurposed to reinstate PISCES’ budget, but was less certain whether they would be effective.

Luke acknowledged that HB 862 is too toxic to serve as a vehicle for PISCES’ budget.

“The best thing for us is to put it in next year’s budget for UH-Hilo,” Luke said, but Romo said a delay that long would eliminate PISCES’ eligibility for various grants.

Luke said the administration has made a proposal to continue funding PISCES under DBEDT, but she was skeptical of that proposal as well, due to DBEDT’s history of neglecting PISCES. Luke said PISCES was the first agency DBEDT proposed to cut in order to prune the budget during the COVID pandemic.

Luke said there are “some scenarios where the administration could hold up PISCES until next year,” in the same way that there are contingencies to maintain a budget for HTA regardless of the outcome of HB 862.

Nakashima said it might be possible for UH to shoulder partial funding for PISCES this year, possibly with spare American Rescue Plan Act funds, but added that’s not an ideal solution.

Hilo Rep. Chris Todd said funding for PISCES is one of his top priorities when the Legislature reconvenes Tuesday to consider any veto overrides.

“We’re trying to find areas to diversify our economy, but this is already providing economic activity here in Hilo,” Todd said. “We don’t want to say we’re about diversification while eliminating existing programs. I’m pretty hopeful we’ll be able to restore that funding.”

But even if funding is restored to PISCES, the damage is already done. One former employee has formally retired, Romo said, and another has moved out of state to pursue a doctorate. And Romo said he will not return as PISCES director.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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