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Gambling Bill Morphs to Changes in Environmental Laws

Posted March 20, 2012, 06:17 PM HST Updated February 6, 2013, 03:47 PM HST
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The Holiday season opens tonight at the Hawaii County Building in Hilo with the first in a series of musical events through Dec. 20. File photo.

It started out last year as a bill that would have permitted certain types of gambling; it re-emerged Monday as a measure that would exempt state construction projects from many current environmental regulations.

The process by which this makeover occurs is described by some legislative watchdogs as “gut & replace.”

In 2011, the measure, Senate Bill 755, made it though the Senate and through two of three full House votes in 2011 before being tabled. But because Hawaii’s Legislature operates on a biennium process, any bills that get deferred in an odd-numbered year are available for re-consideration the following year.

The bill’s title – which says the bill is “relating to economic development” – may be interpreted by some as the same now, but its content has changed entirely.

It even confused a staffer for one Big Island representative contacted by Big Island Now for comment on the “new” bill, who called back to say his boss was opposed to gambling.

Resurrected Monday as House Draft 2, SB755 will be heard Wednesday by three House committees.

The Big Island lawmakers who chair two of the committees, Rep. Jerry Chang of Water, Land and Ocean Resources, and Rep. Denny Coffman of Energy and Environmental Protection, did not immediately return a call requesting comment.

The newly reformulated bill would exempt state projects from having to obtain Special Management Area (SMA) permits from their current source, which is the county planning commissions made up of citizen appointees. The SMA law is primarily intended to protect the environmental resources of coastal areas.

The bill would instead transfer, apparently at least until 2015, that role to the state Office of Planning. It would also change state law to allow the Office of Planning to exempt a state project from having to obtain an SMA permit, and prohibit any agency or member of the public from suing the Office of Planning over such an action.

The bill would also establish deadlines – the initial one is 10 days for the Office of Planning to take up the matter of a SMA permit – that if not met, would mean the project is automatically exempt from needing the permit.

Zendo Kern

Zendo Kern. Courtesy photo.

Zendo Kern, chairman of the Hawaii County Windward Planning Commission, told Big Island Now that he would oppose such a measure. Kern, who is also a candidate for the County Council’s new Fifth District, said he is a firm believer of home rule in such circumstances.

“I think it’s critical to have SMA permits come before a planning commission made up of local residents who have a better understanding of the matter at hand,” Kern said.

The bill also allows the governor to designate, until at least 2015, which state projects are exempt from the need to prepare an environmental assessment (EA). The bill would also extend that authority to the counties’ mayor for projects in their jurisdiction.

Under current law, government funding for a project is a primary trigger requiring that an EA be prepared.

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Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, calls the new form of the bill “environmentally destructive” and said it excludes the public from normal review processes.

Early in the legislative session, the environmental watchdog group had issued a warning about “The Dirty Dozen,” a list of bills that contained what they considered environmental red flags. Wong said most of those bills have been shot down because of public protest, but SB 755 contains “much of the worst language” from the original list.

“Whoever is behind this bill, they do not have the public interest or protection of Hawaii’s fragile and finite environment in mind,” she said.

Wong also questioned why some parts of the bill have a June 30, 2015 “sunset” date.

“Why is it OK for four years and not after that?” she said. “Why the urgency?”

Actually, some aspects of the bill do not have a sunset date, including the section allowing the governor and mayors to establish the EA-exempt list. Projects will remain on the list, even past the sunset date, until they are cancelled by the governor or mayors. The only requirement would be that the projects cannot be started until the list is made public.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen

Rep. Cynthia Thielen. Courtesy photo.

State Rep. Cynthia Thielen was also critical of the legislation.

“It’s a terrible bill,” said Thielen, a Republican who represents parts of windward Oahu. “It takes away all of the home rule for the counties.”

She also blasted the maneuver used to push the new bill forward.

“I don’t see how gutting our environmental regulations can be considered economic development,” she said.

Thielen has been openly critical this session of the spate of bills, many supported by the Abercrombie administration, that prompted the Friends’ Dirty Dozen list.

“I’ve never had a session like this where there’s so much of an attack on the environment,” she said.

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