Permitting for airport projects draws fire
The state House is accused of rushing to approve a bill
Passage of a House bill to streamline the permitting process for construction and land improvements at airports is drawing criticism from an environmental group and some majority Democrats.
Critics complain that the bill is being rushed through the Legislature, thanks to a commonly used practice of expediting proposals.
"It's the type of behavior -- the type of funny business -- that turns off the public and makes people frustrated with the process," said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club, Hawaii Chapter.
House leaders, including Speaker Calvin Say, say there is no wrongdoing afoot and note that the measure in question went through two committee hearings that were conducted with the required public notice.
"It may not be perfect, but it's trying to keep the flow of business continuing," said Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise-Palolo Valley).
At issue is House Bill 416, which would exempt structures and improvements to land used for airports from county agencies' special management area permitting requirements and the approval of county agencies.
According to a committee report, it would "expedite needed safety and customer service improvements at Hawaii's airports."
The proposal was advanced by the Transportation and the Water, Land, Ocean Resources and Hawaiian Affairs committees.
The Sierra Club, one of a handful of groups that testified against the measure, objected to the bill's passage, arguing the Water-Land Committee did not provide the required 48 hours' notice before holding a decision making hearing on the measure.
"In light of this violation, we request that the House take immediate action to recommit HB 416," Mikulina wrote in a letter to Say. "Otherwise, the Sierra Club will have no recourse but to consider challenging the validity of HB 416."
At the request of the two committee chairmen, Say granted a waiver of the 48-hour notice required prior to decision-making on the bill, a common practice typically reserved for bills facing tight deadlines or when hearings go later than expected.
But Mikulina said no such deadline was facing this bill and that lawmakers have until Friday to complete work on it before sending it to the Senate. He also argued that no reason was given as to why the expedited request was made.
Water-Land Vice Chairman Pono Chong (D, Maunawili-Kaneohe) said one reason chairmen often like to pass measures through quickly is so that their bill can be the one that goes to conference -- where House and Senate members hammer out final versions of bills.
Chong also noted that the waiver was only granted for decision making and that the public had ample time to weigh in on the measure at committee hearings.
"There is a purpose and reason for doing it," Say added. "It's just to keep these issues alive, and that has always been my thought.
"If there's any hanky-panky, let it be caught in the Senate, or let the Senate address that particular issue. I would say there is nothing of that nature right now."
Say said he does not believe any laws were broken, noting that the Hawaii courts give the Legislature broad powers to set and suspend rules.
In his response to the Sierra Club, Say included a 2002 opinion from House Chief Attorney Richard Dvonch stating that "violations of legislative rules do not impair in any way the validity of legislation. ... The state Constitution gives the Legislature the right to determine the rules of its own procedure."
But some House Democrats, mostly those who already have been critical of Say and his leadership team this session, agree with Mikulina, that such moves give the appearance of impropriety.
"If we have rules set up to provide public notice, then we should follow them," said Rep. Scott Saiki (D, Moiliili-McCully).
"The reason why waivers need to be scrutinized is because if left unchecked, it could lead to abuse," added Rep. K. Mark Takai (D, Newtown-Pearl City). "In good faith, working with the people, I think we need to live up to some of these rules."
Say added that he did not see any major problems with expediting HB 416 because the main beneficiary was the state.