State House blocks Maunakea bills

  • Telescopes are shown on Maunakea in this 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)

Three bills affecting use and management of Maunakea appear headed for the dust bin after the state House of Representatives refused to assign members to a conference committee.

The legislation includes two controversial measures that would have created a new management authority of the mountain or imposed a construction moratorium that critics say could have killed the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

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House Speaker Scott Saiki said the chamber doesn’t want to take up legislation that could impact astronomy in Hawaii while the state Supreme Court considers appeals related to TMT.

“We don’t want to send mixed messages about the astronomy program,” he said Monday.

The Legislature’s two chambers appoint conferees to work out an agreement when they’ve passed different versions of a bill. But the House’s decision not to appoint members to a conference committee on these bills means they are dead for the session short of some last-minute attempt to resurrect them.

Rep. Mark Nakashima, D-Hamakua, Hilo, said he supports the decision to kill the management and moratorium measures.

He said there are issues to address on the mountain. But Nakashima added he doesn’t think the solution is to “switch horses, so to speak, and create something entirely new.”

“From my vantage point, the Office of Maunakea Management has been working to address the past wrongs that kind of happened really before it came into being,” he said.

However, Nakashima was unaware that a bill of his to require use of four-wheel drive vehicles to access Maunakea and Waipio Valley was one of the three being rejected. While the other two measures fired up critics, that bill appeared to receive widespread support, including from the University of Hawaii.

Still, Saiki said he wasn’t appointing conferees.

“The House’s position is we will not move any legislation that impacts Maunakea this year,” he said.

The state Senate passed a bill creating a new management authority for Maunakea but it failed to get a hearing in the House Finance Committee. The Senate resurrected the measure by inserting it into a bill from the House through a move known as “gut and replace.”

It used a similar procedure to craft the moratorium bill, which would prevent new construction on the mountain until UH conducts multiple audits and receives a new master lease for the science reserve, in addition to other steps.

That change occurred during the Senate and Ways Committee, thwarting opportunities for public comment. Supporters of astronomy, and some senators, criticized the absence of a hearing before it went to the Senate floor for a vote.

Sen. Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, championed both bills and held numerous meetings around the state about issues facing Maunakea. He didn’t return a phone call requesting comment Monday.

Kahele has said he supports TMT but not the “status quo” on the mountain.

Thayne Currie, an astronomer on Maunakea and spokesman for Yes2TMT, welcomed the House’s decision.

“I am grateful that the House is listening to the community’s voice, which is clearly saying ‘do not sneak through a bill to hijack the people’s process on TMT,’ ” he said in an email. “I sincerely hope that Sen. Kahele listens better in the future.”

While he disagreed with the two bills from the Senate, Nakashima stopped short of criticizing the process in which they were created. He said gut and replace can be a legitimate tool for the Legislature to use if an issue comes up late in the session.

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“It’s a double-edged sword,” Nakashima said. “Sometimes you like an idea. Sometimes you don’t.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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