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Gambling bill designed to lift native Hawaiians


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POSTED: Thursday, February 04, 2010

Legalized gambling in Hawaii has a long history of proposal, debate and death, but the concept is on the move again with a fresh angle that would make native Hawaiians the primary beneficiaries.

House Bill 2759 was passed by the state House Committee on Hawaiian Affairs yesterday, signaling a willingness by legislators to consider alternatives for the state's dire fiscal crisis. Proponents testified that it would create jobs and a potentially lucrative revenue stream, and help native Hawaiians - especially those waiting for Hawaiian homelands -

by providing funds to expedite the homestead waiting list.

Officially, the bill amends the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act to authorize casino gambling operations on Hawaiian homelands, and establishes a gaming commission in the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Although the language and details of the bill could change as it marches to the Judiciary and Finance committees, it currently dictates that 80 percent of revenues generated from legalized gaming would be reserved for the Hawaiian Homelands Trust fund; the remaining 20 percent would go to the state's

general fund.

"I think when we have these economic hard times, things like this that people don't want to touch because of the politics, I think it's a great opportunity," said Rep. Mele Carroll (D, Lanai-Molokai), chairwoman of the Committee on Hawaiian Affairs. "I think homesteaders have a right to have this discussion, instead of just the policymakers making the decision, because there are great models in the U.S. I'm also looking at it from a standpoint of reinvestment in our community. Gambling is part of our culture."

Carroll, who introduced the bill, said she visited the land of the Tulalip tribe in Washington state and witnessed how much gaming has helped them take control of their destiny and repurchase land they lost.

"I saw it firsthand, and I got it," said Carroll, who is on the waiting list of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands herself, and noted that her parents were on the list for 25 years. "I'm not a gambler, but I see so many benefits in some of the tribes, and it's because of their leadership."

Lobbyist John Radcliffe of Capitol Consultants of Hawaii testified that an economic study completed in 2000 showed that if the two casinos proposed for construction at the time - one on the North Shore and another in Waikiki - were operating, they would generate $712 million per year and employ 4,000 people.

According to Robert Hall of the DHHL, about 25,000 people are on the homestead waiting list. The organization is able to process about 500 to 1,000 people per year. However, the department opposes the legislation due to "concern about the potential disadvantages associated with gaming, like negative impacts to local businesses, difficulties with and cost of regulation, and social costs which may unintentionally cause a negative impact to our beneficiaries and the state," according to written testimony.

"(The opposition) just means they're following the executive branch," Carroll said. "That's why I want to get it out of this building, and get it to the people so they can have this discussion. So if the homesteaders would like a casino resort, they have the mechanism to do it."

Several other groups opposed the bill with testimony about the social ills and long-term detrimental effects of legalizing gambling. The Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling noted that "crime would increase and local businesses and entertainment venues would shut down as the mainland gambling industry encroached on these islands."

Jack Hoag, director of public affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hawaii, submitted testimony on behalf of 75,000 church members opposing the bill, citing the destruction of Hawaii's image and hidden costs that include the need for more police and government oversight. The city Prosecutor's Office also objected for many of the same reasons, as did the Hawaii Family Forum and the League of Women Voters.

However, a substantial unregulated, untaxed gambling entertainment industry already exists here, according to Radcliffe. Instead of reaping the benefits, Hawaii exports between $500 million and $1 billion per year in after-tax dollars to some of the 865 casinos in the rest of the country. The only two states without legalized gaming are Utah and Hawaii.

The House Judiciary and Consumer Protection & Commerce committees will hear the gaming bill at 2:15 p.m. today in Conference Room 325 at the state Capitol.