US Senator Daniel Akaka
US Senator Daniel Akaka

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – U.S. Senate Democrats are charging taxpayers for an all expense paid trip to Hawaii, and that has some taxpayer advocates in the Washington beltway riled up.

Staff of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee are on Maui for the week leading up to a conference – “Overcoming Barriers to Economic Development in Native Communities”- which is set for Wednesday, August 17, at the Maui Beach Hotel.

The committee is chaired by Hawaii’s own Sen. Daniel Akaka.

Akaka, who is the only Senator attending, is being criticized for holding the conference on Maui instead of Washington D.C. and sending his staff to Hawaii for a week.

Rick Manning from Americans for Limited Government has been to the islands on several occasions. “While I am a big advocate of tourism to Hawaii, it sends bad signal to the rest of America when a Senate committee decides to spend taxpayers dollars to send politicians and their staff off to a resort for a week for a hearing that could have been held in Washington DC.”

Manning said he “loves Hawaii,” said “if they all want to go to Hawaii on their own dime, they should do it.”

But he maintains the Maui conference “does not show respect for taxpayers and taxpayer dollars.”

“It is especially insensitive when the country’s rating has just been downgraded and the country is $1.6 trillion in debt every year. It is an astonishing revelation about the lack of responsibility by people who made the decision,” Manning said.

A check on the Maui Beach Hotel’s room rates show the facility, which is located near the airport in Kahului, is charging between $89 to $99 per night. Airline tickets from Washington DC to Maui are high right now because of the summer travel peak. They are starting at $1168 for each round trip.

Akaka’s spokesperson Jesse Broder Van Dyke said the committee is holding an oversight field hearing “to receive testimony from Native Hawaiian and tribal organizations, tribal governments, and relevant federal and state agencies regarding administrative and legislative barriers that exist in providing economic development opportunities for Native communities.”

The hearing “is in keeping with Senator Akaka’s commitment to make sure he hears from all stakeholders when considering policies that impact indigenous peoples,” Broder Van Dyke said in an email.

The committee hearings are open to the public and “witnesses are always responsible for their own expenses to testify at a hearing,” he said.

Akaka’s office did not say how many of the Indian Affairs staff members are attending or what their travel expenses are.

Jack Stevens, Chief of the Division of Economic Development, Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. and Michelle Kauhane, Deputy Director for the Department of Hawaii Home Lands, work for government agencies, so will likely have their expenses covered by taxpayer funds.

Other speakers include Brian Patterson, President, United South and Eastern Tribes, Nashville, TN; Robin Danner, President/CEO of the Council for Native American Advancement, in Honolulu, HI; The Honorable Nathan Small, Chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Fort Hall, ID; and The Honorable W. Ron Allen, Tribal Chair for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Sequim, WA; and Michael Hudson, Operations Manager for Wow Farm, Inc., Kamuela, on the island of Hawaii.

Taxpayers regularly cover travel expenses for congressional committee staffers.  On October 1, the public may be able to access these expenditures through a report Senate committee members must file. It details expenditures of committees such as the Indian Affairs Committee.

Akaka, a native Hawaiian who has been a major proponent of Native Hawaiian Recognition, has advocated for the Akaka Bill for about 12 years, but the controversial bill has never passed the Senate. It is not known whether the Akaka Bill will also be discussed at the conference.

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