PISCES Left Behind: Hilo Pau-Based Program Unless Lawmakers Save It
Lawmakers are scrambling to restore funding for a state-run aerospace center after an administrative error excluded it from the state budget.
The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, or PISCES, has shut down after unexpectedly finding itself without an operating budget after an error in a state budget bill signed in the month latest.
“I don’t know if they forgot or neglected to include funds for PISCES in the bill, but it was not included in the final budget, and by the time someone realized it account, it had already been forwarded to the governor, “said former PISCES director Rodrigo Romo.
He said an earlier version of the budget transferred the budget from PISCES to the University of Hawaii, but later versions consolidating various budget items apparently did not include the center.
Oahu representative Sylvia Luke confirmed on Friday that the budget problem was caused by a simple oversight – which has potentially fatal ramifications for the aerospace center.
Romo said five PISCES employees were laid off and its offices closed. Romo himself took on another job and is now the manager of the Maunakea Visitor Information Station for Maunakea Support Services.
PISCES was founded in 2007 as part of an affiliation with UH-Hilo, but in 2012 was legally transferred to the Ministry of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Before its shutdown, Romo said PISCES was working on a project under a NASA grant to develop a low-power, low-cost method of manufacturing lunar landings.
“For several years the current director of DBEDT (Mike McCartney) has been trying to starve PISCES,” said Hamakua representative Mark Nakashima. “He’s more of a tourism guy than a space guy. So we decided to transfer him to UH-Hilo, which we knew would be a more hospitable environment for him. “
The bill transferring PISCES to UH-Hilo was Bill 862, which was passed by most of the state legislature with little controversy or fanfare.
“Things looked really good for us around May,” Romo said.
However, a Senate committee added several new clauses to the bill, which more than tripled its length and changed its focus.
It was no longer a simple bill transferring an organization between state agencies, but rather became a flashpoint of controversy as it proposed significant cuts to the budget and functions of the Tourism Authority. Hawaii, and changed the way transitional accommodation taxes would be distributed to counties.
The revised HB 862 aroused the ire of many sectors, including lawmakers and the business community, but was nevertheless successfully passed by the Senate. In the meantime, the PISCES clauses that remained in the bill have been ignored.
Ultimately, Governor 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 would also nullify the language transferring PISCES to UH-Hilo.
Romo said HB 862 was a setback, but that wasn’t what ultimately killed PISCES – the error in the state budget was unrelated to the progress of the bill. However, the unpopularity of the bill could pose problems in restoring the budget to PISCES.
“We hope to amend the transfer bill to include funding for PISCES,” Nakashima said, explaining that HB 862 will be amended this week in a session to override some of the governor’s vetoes, and will include a budget of $ 800,000 for PISCES.
However, he added that there was no intention to remove the terms related to hypertension or TAT from the bill.
Nakashima said there are a pair of other bills that could be reused to restore the PISCES budget, but it was less certain that they were effective.
Luke admitted that HB 862 is too toxic to be used as a vehicle for the PISCES budget.
“The best thing for us is to put it in next year’s budget for UH-Hilo,” Luke said, but Romo said such a long delay would rule out PISCES eligibility for various grants.
Luke said the administration made a proposal to continue funding PISCES under DBEDT, but was also skeptical of the proposal, due to DBEDT’s history of neglecting PISCES. Luke said PISCES was the first agency DBEDT offered to cut in order to prune the budget during the COVID pandemic.
Luke said there are “certain scenarios in which the administration could delay PISCES until next year,” in the same way that there are contingencies to maintaining a budget for HTA regardless of HB’s outcome. 862.
Nakashima said it might be possible for UH to take on partial funding for PISCES this year, perhaps with additional funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, but added that this was not an ideal solution.
Hilo representative Chris Todd said funding for PISCES is one of his top priorities when the Legislature meets on Tuesday to consider any veto waivers.
“We’re trying to find areas to diversify our economy, but it’s already providing economic activity here in Hilo,” Todd said. “We don’t mean to say we’re aiming for diversification while eliminating existing programs. I am optimistic that we can restore that funding.
But even if the funding is returned to PISCES, the damage is already done. A former employee has officially retired, Romo said, and another left the state to pursue a doctorate. And Romo has said he won’t be returning as director of PISCES.
Email Michael Brestovansky at [email protected]