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TAXWatch: Case of the Missing Contact Tracer Millions

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T he story you are about to read is true.  The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.  This is the city:  Honolulu, Hawaii.  I live here.  I’m a doggie.

This is the Case of the Missing Contact Tracer Millions.

In a previous column the Boss mentioned $1.25 billion that the federal government made available to Hawaii through the CARES Act.  (I wanted to howl about the real possibility that lots of that money will disappear at year’s end.)

Another federal act was passed after the CARES Act to throw a few more bones to those using the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  That act, the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, also made $11 billion more available to the states.  Hawaii’s share of this additional money was roughly $50 million.  It was supposed to be for necessary expenses to develop or scale up COVID-19 testing, conduct surveillance, trace contacts, and other pandemic related activities.

In Senate Bill 75, the legislature told us what we were going to do with that money.  $36 million was to go to the Department of Transportation for thermal screening and related uses, and $14 million was to go the Department of Health for outbreak control, contact tracing, and personal protective equipment.

The bill also said that both agencies were to submit a monthly report to the governor and legislature that details all allocations and expenditures.

Governor Ige allowed the bill to become law without his signature on July 15th.  None of the appropriations just mentioned were vetoed or reduced.  So, the Department of Health was able to fetch $14 million.

It doesn’t seem like $14 million was spent on contact tracing.  When a group of senators raided the Department to sniff around, they found only a handful of overworked tracers where there were supposed to be closer to a hundred.

As mentioned, the appropriation act required monthly reports to the legislature on how the money was spent.  Reports to the legislature from an executive department are called Departmental Communications and are available on the Legislature’s website.  I pawed through the departmental communications from May 5 to August 20, DC 432 to DC 492, and none of them were from the Department of Health.  (There was no Department of Transportation report either.)

I’m not the only one trying to dig up information on where the money went.  On August 19, U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo of California, who chairs the Subcommittee on Health of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote a letter to Governor Ige asking the same question.  She said that “less than two months ago, Hawaii had the lowest number of COVID-19 cases per capita of any state in the nation.  However, this trend has reversed and now Hawaii has the highest infection rate in the United States.”  She requested specific information, and the last request was:  “Due to numerous instances of conflicting and false information being released to the public by your Department of Health regarding the number of contract tracers employed and their capabilities, what specific actions will you take to restore the integrity of the Department of Health?”

Yipe!  Talk about pointed questions!

This is a true story.  The end of the story has not yet been written.  We too will be following the money, or trying to, and will continue to bark like crazy if we can’t.  Ours is a tough job but someone has to do it.  The name’s Watch Doggie.

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About Tom Yamachika

Tom Yamachika
Tom Yamachika is the President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a private, nonprofit educational organization dedicated to informing the taxpaying public about the finances of our state and local governments in Hawaii. Tom is also a tax attorney in solo practice and has been since early 2013. Prior to 2013, he was with the accounting firm Accuity LLP, which was formed in 2006 from the Honolulu office of Coopers & Lybrand (which later became PricewaterhouseCoopers). Before that, he served as an Administrative Rules Specialist in the State of Hawaii Department of Taxation from 1994 to 1996, where he drafted rules, interpretive releases, and legislation on several different state taxes. Prior to that, he practiced litigation and tax law with Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright in Honolulu.

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