County works to fund ag theft initiative after failed legislation

KAILUA-KONA — As a category of crime, agricultural theft and vandalism continues not to rate.

That’s the message the state Legislature sent when it spiked House Bill 1883 HD2 SD2 out of conference committee — Speaker Scott Saiki discharging House conferees before legislators held a hearing.

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The measure, introduced by Rep. Richard Creagan, D-South Kona and portions of North Kona and Ka‘u, would have extended an existing Hawaii County program by establishing a two-year agricultural theft and vandalism pilot project to run through the state Department of Agriculture.

“It was kind of the collateral damage of political infighting,” Creagan said of the legislation. “There was no reason to kill the bill. Everybody thought it was a good idea. It didn’t require a lot of money. … I don’t know why it was killed, but I do think it was a good bill that should have passed.”

Legislators and DOA officials familiar with the proposal said an annual appropriation of $200,000 would have fully funded the pilot project.

“Here we are, importing 85-90 percent of our food, spending $3 billion every year,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, an Oahu Democrat who wrote the Senate companion bill to Creagan’s HB 1883. “We’ve got thousands of acres just waiting to be farmed … yet we can’t pass a simple law that will protect our farmers from (expletive) stealing their crops and vandalizing their farms.”

The Senate Ways and Means Committee attached a second part to Creagan’s bill after it crossed over from the House, which would have sent funding to the state’s Agribusiness Development Corp. to research and ultimately try to increase the exportability and marketability of locally grown papaya.

“I don’t have any insight into the reason (the bill failed), but I think it’s probably because WAM and (the Finance Committee) in the House — they didn’t approve release of the funding,” Gabbard said. “Again, I’m speculating at this point, but adding that papaya research section on probably didn’t help.”

Neither Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Committee on Finance, nor Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, returned request for comment by press time Friday on financial issues that might have impeded the bill’s passage.

Dela Cruz, an Oahu Democrat, was the primary introducer of Senate Bill 3087, the original legislation intended to fund papaya research through the ADC.

The House Committee on Agriculture, which Creagan chairs, connected an audit of the ADC to SB 3087 after it crossed over.

The measure never made it out of conference committee.

Following the House amendment to SB 3087, the Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Dela Cruz, subsequently attached the papaya funding to Creagan’s HB 1883 to fund the agricultural theft and vandalism pilot project.

Keeping a program in place

One agricultural theft enforcement position, filled by investigator Shane Muramaru, was created on Hawaii Island through a partnership last year between the DOA and the Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Despite a lack of legislative funding, Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said, maintaining the position is a top priority.

“We have seen it to be very effective,” he said.

Agricultural thieves are notoriously hard to catch because of the remote locations of the goods they steal, and the cases that are made often prove difficult to prosecute, Roth said.

DOA allocated $92,000 from its budget to fund the initiative, which works mostly to establish verified paper trails to validate product origin as well as cut off vending opportunities for those trafficking in stolen goods — namely farmers markets and roadside stands.

Jeri Kahana, DOA Quality Assurance Division administrator, is working with Roth to secure funding. The current deal expires sometime in mid-July, she said, and the parties are aiming to increase the program budget to $102,000 this time around.

Kehana was skeptical as to how long HDOA could keep digging into its coffers to support the initiative without help.

“Of course not,” she said when asked if the current financial model was sustainable. “That’s why we try to introduce a bill every year to get the legislative support.”

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Creagan and Gabbard envision the pilot project jumping off in Hawaii County but ultimately spreading to all islands. Both said they planned to bring the initiative back to the table in the 2019 legislative session.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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